Play & Recess

Facilitating Learning Through Imaginative Play

Play is an essential part of life and can be fostered and strengthened in preschool classrooms to promote learning and growth.

April 4, 2022
Laura Dwight / Alamy

If all preschoolers do is play all day, how could they possibly be learning? Outsiders might believe that play is just play, but to an educator’s eye, play serves a multitude of different and important functions.

Imaginative play is an outlet, a safe space where children can explore the world around them and process their experiences. They might work through their fears and apprehensions of their recent checkup by playing the role of the doctor in their next imaginative play session. Perhaps they play the part of “mom” or “dad” to harness that feeling of control they very rarely have in their lives. Through these dramas, children have a chance to process their thoughts and feelings and explore their relationships with other children. Imaginative play is a great instrument to use to learn the rules of friendship making (and keeping), negotiation, and communication.

Imaginative play also serves the important purpose of allowing children to practice skills and concepts taught during teacher-guided learning. There are certain simple adjustments that educators can make to their classroom in order to facilitate learning through imaginative play.

How Imaginative Play Relates to Integrated Studies

It’s simpler than you might think to incorporate integrated studies into the imaginative play that naturally occurs in your classroom. Truly, any skill or concept you have taught and would like your children to practice can be introduced through imaginative play. Some common subjects that can easily be introduced are literacy, mathematics, and engineering.

Literacy skills are organically fostered in imaginative play as children communicate with each other and build coherent stories to act out. To practice their phonics or handwriting skills, for example, you can turn your imaginative play corner into a restaurant where children need to create a sign for the restaurant and menus to give to their customers.

Keeping with the restaurant theme, children can practice their mathematical skills by figuring out how many plates, cups, forks, and spoons their guests will need. They can add prices to the menu and practice their addition and subtraction skills when settling the bill at the end of the meal. Finally, the children can employ their engineering skills to construct their restaurant using cardboard boxes or other recycled building material.

This is just one example of one period of play that utilizes skills from several subjects. The possibilities to incorporate integrated studies into imaginative play are quite honestly endless.

Enhance Imaginative Play to Support Learning

As a teacher, your role in play is an important one. You also have a part to play in your students’ cocreated dramas. Each role you adopt when it comes to play serves an important function. For the purpose of enhancing imaginative play to support integrated studies, let’s look at the roles of stage manager and play leader.

As a stage manager, you’re not taking part in the play itself; you’re setting the stage for meaningful play to happen. In this role, you can add materials and props to the imaginative play area that will help support the skills you want your students to learn.

For example, if you’d like your children to use mathematical, scientific, and engineering skills, you can turn your play area into the story “The Three Little Pigs.” You can provide materials like costumes for the children to play the parts of the pigs or wolf and construction materials such as sticks, straw, stones or blocks, twine, and glue or tape. You then prompt the students to build a house out of each material to see if it can withstand the blow of the “big bad wolf” (you can use a hair dryer). This activity will test their engineering and reasoning skills, fine motor skills, scientific hypotheses, and much more.

As the play leader, you’re taking more of a hands-on approach to the play happening in your classroom. You can adopt this role if you notice that your students have trouble initiating or maintaining play, or if you want them to practice certain skills. To do this, assert yourself in the play and come up with situations, plot twists, or obstacles for your students to overcome.

For instance, say your students are playing family, which they do frequently, and you want to add a bit of learning to their play. Maybe you want them to use certain vocabulary about parts of the body that you want them to remember, or you want them to practice their writing skills. You can insert yourself and give them the prompt of “Oh no, it looks like the baby is feeling sick and has a fever. What can Mommy and Daddy do?” This will likely lead to a doctor’s visit where they can use the vocabulary you’ve taught them and practice their writing by giving the parents a prescription.

Assessing Imaginative Play

If we create situations where our students can demonstrate or practice what they’ve learned through our teaching, we can use imaginative play as evidence of their learning. Knowing which skills to assess during play depends on your school’s standards or learning objectives. However, gathering evidence of this can easily be done.

The most useful evidence-gathering tool is documentation. Hard evidence such as photos, videos, or direct quotes helps to determine where your students are in terms of learning and will help you to build lessons around the skills that need additional support.

Observation is also a great tool for gathering accurate assessment evidence. When observing students, it’s useful to have a pen and notebook handy to jot down any skills you see in practice. Creating a simple observation document is a great way to make certain you’re keeping track of which subjects and skills you’re assessing and which students you’ve observed.

Helpful Resources

If you’re ready to make a change in how imaginative play is used in your classroom, there are some great books that can ignite your students’ imaginations, such as Not a Box, It Looked Like Spilt Milk, What to Do With a Box, and Where the Wild Things Are. You can use these books as mentor texts or provocations for a specific lesson or skill you’re teaching. For example, if you want to bring STEM into your classroom and teach the skills that math and engineering require, you can read Not a Box and then send your students off to the imaginative play area that just happens to be filled with boxes of different shapes and sizes.

To help you better understand why play is so important to learning at any age, the book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart M. Brown, is a great starting point. Brown discusses how play is an important skill that all mammals possess that allows us to learn and grow, no matter our age.

Another great resource and a go-to for everything play-related is the Institute of Play, where you can access resources, videos, learning games, and an active blog.

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