Meaning: Perhaps the experience that is most crucial for brain development during the first few years of a child’s life is that of play and the activation of the imagination in the realm of play. The profound work of psychologist Jean Piaget zeroed in on the impact of play for children and pointed to its vital necessity in cognitive development along with supporting the child’s emotional and intellectual growth and equilibrium. Piaget was so convinced by the power of the imagination in early childhood cognitive health and development that he saw education’s main purpose in this same light: Piaget asked, “What is the goal of education? Are we forming children that are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try developing creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life?” Psychologists since Piaget have been able to break down the components of play, and they have connected the activity of play with a wide variety of mental abilities, like attention, memory, literacy skills, emotional intelligence, impulse control, and empathy. The experience of role playing, of interacting with others in the context of fantasy scenarios, can even trigger problem-solving skills that can be used later in real socially challenging situations for children. Without the benefit of these playful experiences behind them, children will likely turn to non-verbal, physically aggressive means to solve conflicts. It is the experience of the imagination that feeds possibilities for peaceful resolution, studies have shown. We may use terms like “problem-solving skills” or “critical thinking skills” as ideal facets of brain evolution during the adolescent and early adult years, but it is the thrust of imaginative play experiences in early childhood that is actually setting the stage for these academic-sounding skills later on. Without a childhood steeped in playful activities and sufficient creative outlets, the cognitive skills we associate in older children with academic achievement will be slow and sluggish to emerge, if they are to emerge fully at all. Play and the imagination are active mental activities—I point this out here because today’s popularity with electronic devices and their unfortunate foisting upon our youngest children can weaken the spark toward the imagination and can dull the desire to engage in pure, playful activity. Play enlivens the mind and exercises the brain for creativity’s application in numerous situations, academic and otherwise, for years and years to come. Creativity itself can feed the attributes of boldness, risk-taking, assertiveness, confidence, leadership, and self-awareness, among a host of potentially valuable character traits. It is so vital to accommodate, validate, support, perpetuate, and celebrate the child’s imaginative forays with language, communication, questions, observations, and expressions. Let the child speak freely. The child’s vivid, surprising and sometimes hilarious words and utterances are the revelations of intelligence and also a peek into the inner soul that contains boundless ideas. The adult, the parent, the teacher in the vicinity of the active imagination need not understand what is happening or connect the creative activity with any real life meaning. The important thing is to take joy in the arena of the imagination—go along with it if you can, and be careful not to quash or stifle it.
Actions: The ideal circumstance for parents of infants through four-year-old children is to combine play and creative conditions at home while enrolling your child in a preschool program (note: “preschool” is different from “day care”), provided that your preschool option professes a philosophy of play as a main feature of the learning experience. Don’t be bamboozled by those noisy parents who criticize play and the cultivation of the imagination as some sort of sabotage of or departure from academic preparation. Nothing could be farther from wise child development practices. Those who desire to see a factory-model, desk-bound, drilling-of-content approach like multiplication or vocabulary recitation exercises—and I have encountered many such parents over the years who envision this type of classroom for their young children—probably should home-school their children and steer clear of your typical, well-functioning preschool, no matter whether it is Reggio Emelia, Montessori, Waldorf, Bank Street Curriculum, or any of the other preschool programs that are child- and play- and exploratory-centered. Preschool teachers, directors, assistants, and specialists who work very hard in support of all the young children in their charges and essentially follow a whole child approach to their teaching philosophy, are ill-served by the cynics and critics of play. Those doubting, caustic parents are a disruption and a menace to the school’s ability to bestow sufficient love and care and gentle guidance on the children, which they need in abundance in order for their hearts and minds and souls to be fully nourished and nurtured. Switching gears now to the home front, parents should try to give their children space and time to play on their own, without parental intervention or manipulation. Sure, parents can set the stage, provide the props, and introduce an activity or a prompt to get things going, and even set boundaries, but children should soon be given the opening to move forward as they deem fit and should move along their own creative pathways. Let me emphasize here the concepts of space and time. What this really means is that the commercial arena of play is mostly about pre-fab games that provide content and rules and materials whose purpose will be pre-defined. That’s not what you want for your children. You want their minds to be energized by open possibilities and the sanction to create roles and scenarios and even the rules that will govern their interactive time together—that’s what giving them space and time is all about. And finally, refrain from offering judgments or assessments of their playful activities and ventures; don’t even compliment them, as issuing rewards for their creativity will tend to dampen their desire to spontaneously re-enter their make-believe worlds the next time. You can support their joy and happiness by exuding a tone of delight, surprise, and amazement from time to time, but don’t shower them with sweets or exclamations of success and accomplishment, as these external reward strategies will undermine their spirit of exploration and creativity.
Learning: All adults working with or parenting young children should know at least a few of the main ideas in the Montessori approach to education—these central tenets can apply easily wherever children are. You can read up on these core ideals on any of the Montessori sites, but you will find that they include the following: the teacher/parent is observant and present yet has an unobtrusive role; children are allowed to choose their own activities; children may proceed at their own pace; children learn from each other. Of course there is substantial training involved to prepare teachers to fulfill all the attributes, habits, and mindset in the Montessori system, but any teacher or parent, without formal training, can certainly adopt these few ideals when they are in charge of children. The best monograph I’ve seen on how to nurture creativity is on the earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au site—search for “Nurturing Creativity” which is number 44 on their National Quality Standard – Professional Learning Program series. To see examples of what innovators are doing these days in the area of childhood creativity, check out the earlychildhoodcreativity.com site, where you can click into their events and activities and see examples of what some fantastic programs across Europe are up to in the area of cultivating creativity for young children. The Early Childhood Creativity group is based in Dublin, and founded by Orla Kelly—it is an arts organization leveraging the work of real artists who seek novel ways to engage younger children in marvelous projects that teach several humanistic values.