TRC Read to Kids

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Use the Force! Building imagination through book-inspired imaginary play

When Star Wars first appeared in movie theaters in 1977, I was nine years old. My younger brother and I were completely hooked on this space fantasy, as were our two cousins. The four of us couldn’t wait to find out what else was in store for Princess Leia, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

So we didn’t wait. We took George Lucas’ characters, made them our own and played Star Wars on many long, hot summer days.

Star Wars was a revelation for our imaginative play. It presented us with new characters, new situations and an incredible story with an amazing setting. We created our own characters; we thought there should be more girls. We all wanted to be part of the rebel forces, so we made the evil Empire an invisible terror we alternately ran from and attacked. I’m sure neighbors wondered why we were all in the yard wildly wielding sticks as we battled our unseen enemies in lightsaber duels. Other than the sticks, we didn’t have props or any costumes. It was just our four imaginative minds, working together.

Our biggest problem playing Star Wars was who got to be Princess Leia. Thanks to my brown hair, I won out most of the time. But my cousin did not ever want to be Chewbacca. So we added another princess to our band of rebels and Chewbacca went the way of Harvey

For some kids, imaginative play comes easily. Others need input and encouragement.

Often kids choose to "play" a favorite movie or TV show because that’s their experience. They know the story, the characters and what the characters usually do. But for some kids, all they do is repeat what they’ve seen. If you have few experiences to draw from or no one to show where imagination could enter in, it is hard to figure out how to play at a more sophisticated level. And children need to reach a sophisticated level of pretend play to help build skills such as creative thinking, visualization, self-regulation, reasoning and problem solving.

So what can you do to introduce alternate settings, characters and experiences and encourage kids to use this knowledge in play? Share books! 

Here are some simple examples:

  • Show kids how stories can be changed. Read or tell the traditional tale “The Three Little Pigs” (such as the version by James Marshall) along with The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf by Mark Teague. The kids will immediately see that the original version has been changed and will find the changes fascinating. Any story with an original version and variations will work. Fairy and folk tales are especially good.

  • As you read these titles (or any books!), ask open-ended questions, such as “What do you think will happen next?" Pretend play is all about “What happens next?"

  • Talk about the characters—their actions, what they are feeling and what they talk about.

  • Talk about how the versions of the story differ.

  • Get kids to act out “The Three Little Pigs.” Encourage older kids to take the lead and guide younger ones as they play. Make sure everyone understands the role they are playing and remembers how the story is structured. They should use their own words but stay true to their characters and the classic story.

  • Then, the idea is to get kids to change the story, using their imaginations to develop more elaborate scenarios for their characters or even create new characters, and play! If they are having trouble coming up with ideas on their own, help them mash up the pigs’ story with their own experiences or other stories. For example, the pigs might decide to go and stay in a hotel when they lose their houses. What happens? Or Batman comes to stop the wolf from doing any damage. Or Star Wars fans might come up with their own version—“The Three Little Droids”!

There should be a good bit of negotiating and lots of talking when play is working. You might need to step in occasionally to help things keep moving smoothly and model some good play behaviors. If you are playing along, you might also consider throwing some obstacles in the way to encourage everyone to work together to meet a challenge—“let’s figure out how to organize the furniture in the pig’s new house”—or solve a problem—“what can we do to help a little pig with hay fever?”

Listening to stories read aloud gets kids' imaginations working as they create images of the story in their heads. Getting them to act out and change the stories takes their imagination to a new level, encouraging creative thinking, problem solving and reasoning. Especially since so much of our culture is screen oriented, it's important for kids to have practice creating their own images and scenarios. 

Guest blog post by Belle of the Book, Rachael Walker.

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