In one of my favorite movies, Hook, Peter Banning, the former Peter Pan has grown into a rigid businessman. When he returns to Neverland, he has to complete many tasks to regain his inner-Pan. His adult brain struggles to enter the land of the lost boys. In one of my favorite scenes, the lost boys bring out empty pots and platters of food. The boys begin to voraciously eat out of these bowls. Peter looks totally baffled, until Tinker Bell reminds him that this used to be his favorite game. He begins to embrace his inner-child and begins imagining all of the food. “You’re doing it Peter,” the boys sing. Suddenly, a great feast is before him, and he is visualizing it all. This scene is a beautiful portrayal of childhood imagination at work.
It has been well established that play is critical to brain development in early childhood (Piaget 1962). The first five years of life is a critical time where play increases neural network formation (Kenney 2012). Even the earliest sensorimotor play encourages basic cognitive development (Piaget 1969). One of Piaget’s studies discusses a very young child pretending to drink out of a box and then holding it to the mouth of others to drink from (Piaget 1962). The child is drawing on schema from her mind and then making the box a symbol for a drinking utensil. This shows that even basic pretend play is linked to drawing on schema and imagining.
Michele Root-Bernstein did an interesting study that showed that highly creative and intelligent individuals, such as Nobel Prize winners were much more likely to have engaged in deep imaginary play as children than the control group (Root-Bernstein 2012).
From a parental standpoint, I’m seeing these connections unfold before my eyes daily. Shortly after my daughter’s second birthday she began enjoying pretend play without any toys. One of her favorite games is to run to one side of the yard to “cook” all kinds of food for me, and then she runs them back. She spends a lot of time pretending to take orders, prepare food, and serve it. Truth be told, I love this game because I get to sit on my patio and drink coffee and there are no toys to clean up at the end! But, this simple game is actually a very powerful form of play. Her little mind is drawing on schema for all of the foods she describes in the game. I watch her pretend to put sprinkles on the cookies and syrup on the pancakes, and I can see her wheels turning. While independent reading may be years away, these games pave a path to good visualization.
Imaginative play, true to its name, allows children to imagine and form mental images. Kids have a natural knack for this type of play, but unfortunately some children may be in situations where this type of play is not fostered. Many children in poverty may be facing challenges that impede the amount of time or materials they need to engage in quality play time (Milteer & Ginsburg 2012, Kenney 2012).
Teaching with Poverty in Mind discusses that children in low SES families have fewer play areas in their homes and have less access to toys or learning materials (Jensen 2009). While poverty is a factor in childhood play, it is definitely not the only factor. Other factors such as a single-parent home or the amount of time they are passively entertained by screens could be causing a decrease in children’s play (Kenney 2012). Whatever the case may be, some children have limited experiences with play, and it could affect their comprehension and visualization skills down the road.