The years from ages 3 to 5 are a marvelous time to sit back and watch children represent everything and anything with the greatest of imagination. You begin to get a view of their perspectives of the world, of people, of life, and of who they are. Watching their symbolic play is especially revealing of how they perceive the happenings around them, so we begin to describe preschoolers with a discussion of the changes and capacity of their symbolic play.
Symbolic Pretend Play
As they leave toddlerhood, young children continue to represent themselves in their pretend play, but they expand on their representation of and actions upon others (adults and objects). They pretend to comb their own hair, pretend to comb dad's hair, and pretend to comb a doll's hair. That same play begins to get more complex as the child talks for the doll or her dad, or when the child attributes feelings to a stuffed-toy dog or his mom.
Keeley often talked to her pretend baby in the napkin as if the baby had needs or likes. "You like to be rocked, don't you?" she would say. Later, she would talk for the baby: "I want a bottle," she would say in a baby voice. Keeley began to assume other roles and her symbolic pretend play began to reveal much of her life. Her favorite play was in the role of "teacher" and the adults in her family had to sit on the floor to be read to, or get ready for their naps, or wash their hands for lunch. Her words, tone of voice, and kinds of directions may tell you much about what her day was like.
The kind of symbolic pretend play in which children assume the role of another continues to gain complexity. Children usually begin with familiar roles, that of mother, father, or other relative, then to adults in their lives, such as teacher, doctor, grocery clerk, librarian, or bus driver, to name just a few. The next level of such play is when the child assumes an unfamiliar role, one about which he has little or no information. Even without experience, children roleplay astronauts, ballerinas, cowboys, and police officers. Young children of this age also often act out the roles of husband and wife.
During this time, children use objects a great deal but give them human qualities. Keeley could manage two roles—that of herself interacting with her doll and that of the doll expressing her wants. We heard her change voices for each role and it was quite impressive.
Pretend Play with Peers
We encourage you to observe children's play because there is so much to learn. Another interesting focus for your observations is the pattern that you can see in their processes when they engage in pretend play with other children. First, you will see an initiation phase, a time when a child is approaching a play activity, or deciding on with whom to play, or scanning an area to consider a play choice. Some children are quite good at initiation, and others may need your support.
The next phase of the pattern is a negotiation phase, when children decide the theme of their play, the roles each will play, and any kind of rules or structures. The last phase is the enactment phase. This is the time the children have been working up to—when they will actually pretend together. This is when they enact the scenarios that they negotiated. Watching this process gives you an insight into the potential complexity of children's pretend play.
A parent approaches you with concern about her child's "pretend world": "I worry about all the pretending Lisa does. She pretends to have playmates and she plays with them. She -pretends to be different characters each night at supper and insists that we go along with her. Is it possible for her to be pretending too much? What benefit could all this pretending have?" Respond to Lisa's mother.
You may have some ideas to share with Lisa's mother, but you may also feel that you could use more convincing information. What we have learned from observations of children's play is that we can tell so much about what they understand, what they are thinking, and their concerns and confusions. As we continue, you will learn about other ideas to comfort Lisa's mother.
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