Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Make Believe - Family Play

When I think of children playing, I think of make believe. Whether it’s playing shop-keeper, or mummy putting baby to bed, or Cowboys and Indians - make believe is a fundamental part of how children explore and understand the world around them.

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

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.


Annicles said...

I have a reply that comes from my mummy head rather than my teacher head!!

My youngest daughter spent 2 years in the most amazing Montessori nursery. In the UK the EYFS is law and part of it includes having a role play area in the preschool classroom. You can imagine what this has done to some Montessorians!!!

For the first of her 2 years at nursery, my daughter spent all her time in the role play area. Her Key worker had many chats with me worrying if this was a good thing or should she be encouraged out. My gut feeling was that if she spent 2 years in the role play area then it wouldn't be a bad thing. Also, a funny thing was happening. At nursery she was getting lots of interaction with her friends, at home, during the day while her older siblings were at school she had got me to herself and WE were learning her letters and numbers. Not because I felt she should be but because at every opportunity she was choosing these activities. I found myself going back to my files many times in order to make something because she had begged for it and I wanted to have it ready for her the next day. We had a lovely year together doing lots of baking and going to the park and learning. This year she left the role play area for some of the time and learnt to read and pregressed through the maths materials. She did it at her pace and of her own volition. I am very happy that there has been role play available to her as she obviously needed it, especially in that first year. I am extremely pleased that her key worker was prepared to let her choose it, even to the exclusion of everthing else for a while and that my daughters wishes were respected.

I think that is what it is all about really - respecting each individual child and understanding that they all have different needs at different times.

My Child's Diary said...

I have just recently discovered your blog. And I love it! Such a great idea to compare Montessori and Waldorf/Steiner (haven't heard much of Playcentre before). These are two beautiful approaches, and though many try to claim that they are contradictive, I try to find the aspects I agree with in both, and find the way to integrate instead of denying. We are a Montessori family, but my almost 2 years old plays with Waldorf dolls, wooden cubes and cars. Just yesterday we introduced him his new wooden kitchen (that we built for him), and he spent most of his time since then pretending to cook there (even though he is involved in almost every dinner we cook in the real kitchen, using real knife, cutting vegetables, and washing dishes with real water). I don't see any contradiction here to Montessori guidelines. I guess that those Montessorians who believe in the strict separation between the work circle and "free play time" do so in order not to interfere with the child's concentration during his work. But there are also others who believe that a child absorbs knowledge also during his play, while using his imagination to pretend doing something he witnessed the adults did earlier, or even he himself did during the Practical Life activities. It would be also an important part of the work circle, as well as the regular guidelines exist. This is of course when the imagination is built on reality, and not fantasy. For me, it is much like us adults do simulations when we want to practice something. For instance, when we make a simulation of the job interview with the friend before approaching a real one, or nursing a doll, while learning how to hold a baby, previous to our children birth. Play is so important for everyone - much more for a child. Unfortunately, I don't have yet enough knowledge on this topic, but I am quite sure that Maria Montessori never meant to exclude play from children learning. Of course, the materials should be granted with respect, and for reason they were invented for, but it doesn't mean that the sparkles of the creativity will be prevented. This is where a teacher must serve as a guide, following a child on his own unique path of learning, allowing him to enjoy the freedom of learning within the external agreed limits (for instance, not disturbing anyone else or treating the materials with the respect).
Wow, it was a VERY long reply...:) I guess I was just thinking loudly...:)
It is very nice to meet you, by the way.
PS I had a very interesting discussion recently on my blog regarding Montessori toddlers imaginative play. You are welcome to have a look -

Dawn said...

Very interesting topic. I home school my kids and we started out with a Montessori approach in the early years and gradually added in more and more Waldorf ideas, mostly because of the make believe play element of it that I thought was important. My kids are home with me all day, so they get plenty of practical life experience in the kitchen, etc...