In both Waldorf/Steiner and Playcentre, make believe play is a huge part of what the children do - it extends across all areas of play as children 'live out' what they see and experience in their lives.
There are two 'areas of play' in Playcentre that specifically encourage and nurture make believe play - Family Play and Fantasy Play. Today I'll look at Family Play.
The Family Play area of a Playcentre is usually set up in three ways - a doll's area with dolls, cots, clothes and highchairs, a play kitchen set up, and a 'shop' with a pretend cash register and empty boxes of common foods - like cereals, biscuits, flour etc. The dolls are very 'real' - newborn babies with exact features, in hard plastic that allows them to be washed in the water trough, fed playdough, buried in the sand, painted ... and cleaned up again at the end of the session. With my Steiner-tinted glasses on I find them almost aggressively ugly in their hard plastic bodies and polyester hair, but the children love them just the same.
Photocredit: Angelina's Mummy
One of my 'complaints' when we joined Playcentre was the way the dolls were treated - usually just thrown, naked, into a pile in the corner at the end of a session. I was very surprised to read in my Course 1 training that the dolls represent babies in Playcentre, and should be treated with care and love. Clearly the intention is there, but in a busy parent-run Playcentre, taking the time to properly care for these 'babies' just doesn't often happen.
In a Waldorf/Steiner kindergarten, Family Play is fundamentally very similar - doll babies are pushed in pushchairs and put to bed imaginary meals are cooked, and purchases are made from shop counters. The materials are quite different - cots are unpainted wood, the teasets are works of art, the blankets are hand-knitted, and there are baskets of 'unformed' materials like shells, pegs and branches which are transformed by the children's imagination into all manner of things ... shells become plates and cups, or money for a shop, pegs are spoons to feed a baby, a small branch becomes a bottle, or a cash register, or a present to wrap in a playsilk and give to a friend.
Family play is particularly nurtured in the Waldorf context by the teachers, who carry out all sorts of real work for the children to imitate and transform in their play ... you will see the teachers grinding flour to make bread, chopping vegetables for the soup, sweeping floors, mending toys. Children see this work, and it gives new life to their play.
Perhaps the best known of the Waldorf toys is the Waldorf doll, hand made cloth dolls with deliberately simple features so that the child can imagine the doll to be anyway, or anyone, the child chooses. Dolls are treated with great care, I remember a playgroup teacher saying she actually couldn't sleep knowing that our playgroup dolls had no mattresses in their cots. Dolls are never left unclothed, or in a heap ... if a teacher sees a doll on the floor she will simply pick it up, straighten in out, wrap it in a blanket and put it in a bed. Over time, children imitate this care.
Photo credit waldorfmama.com
When it comes to Family Play, the 'odd one out' is Montessori. You won't see play kitchens, or dolls, in a Montessori pre-school. Maria Montessori found that when she provided children with both these 'conventional' playthings and more structured 'work' activities, the children always chose the real work. In addition, the Montessori philosophy tends to stay away from 'make believe' play, encouraging children to be grounded in what is real.
Personally, I really struggle to imagine re-directing children away from this type of make believe play ... but I haven't spent enough time in a Montessori pre-school to have seen this in action. I would certainly be interested in anyone's experience with this. I raised this issue of play with a favourite Montessori blogger of mine ... and she had this to say (although I encourage you to read the whole post!)
Montessori doesn't exclude "play", but it also doesn't purposely put it out in the classroom. For example, many early childhood classrooms have an area for "dramatic play", which might include costumes or themed play sets. You won't find these in a Montessori classroom. Montessori believes that children, at the Primary level, should be grounded in reality (before fantasy) in order to best understand the world around them. Under this principal, much of the Practical Life area makes a lot of sense. Why play with a toy kitchen, when you can best understand and experience a kitchen by doing actual work that would be done in a kitchen?
For me, I think I can just about live with this - that both structured activities and free play can exist, but they are not the same thing. I do struggle with the way that Montessori pre-schools (here in NZ) split 'free play' time and 'Montessori work time' ... I personally love the free-flow of play that happens in Playcentre. What do you think?
Thanks to WaldorfMama for generously letting me use her beautiful photos to illustrate this post.