It’s Sunday morning and I’m writing this whilst D is playing downstairs. I can hear him chattering to himself whilst he makes his trains go choo.
This is such a big step forward. More than a step – it’s a huge gigantic humongous gargantuan leap.
You never think when you have children of the things you take for granted. The developmental steps that you just assume they will take. That whilst you know play is good for children – you have never really given much thought to the why. And you never imagine having a child who doesn’t ‘play’.
He did play – just not in a way you would expect. He has always loved being outside – getting a dog was one of the best things we ever did. So most of his early play involved being outside. Mastering his scooter, then his balance bike. Learning to overcome the limitations of his coordination to climb trees and navigate the bumpy bike track. These are some of our happiest times with him. But he didn’t play at home – and rarely independently. The play he wanted to do was usually very physical – building ramps for the balls to go down, swinging on hoops, bouncing on balls, play fighting. But nothing that involved imagination.
You see a deficit in imaginative play is a deficit in the mind. It means that your child’s brain isn’t functioning the way it should. Imaginative play skills are inextricably linked to brain development. They form the foundation of communication. They help a child to role play and therefore start to make sense of the world. Even before imagination, they build a strong sense of personal narrative about the real world around them. Going to the shops, playing doctors, buying tickets at the railway station.
Gradually over the last few years we have worked on these skills for D. Moving from very structured and rote learned role plays, where the interactions would be the same every time – over and over. And over and over. And over and over. The same thing every time – until you wanted to scream internally with the boredom of it all. Gradually he would let you change something – maybe letting the train go to Grandma’s instead of the shop. Slowly, very very slowly things started to change.
For a very long time the only books he would read were a very small number of mostly factual picture books. The same books over and over again. Read in the same way, with you making the same observations. It was a carefully executed dance. There were possibly 2 fiction books – one about Chu the panda with a big sneeze and the other Tabby McTat. Both of which have been read in amounts probably getting into multiple hundreds. But we keep going – gradually introducing bed time verbal stories about his day. Talking to him about day to day stuff. As his understanding of narrative in daily life grew – he allowed us to introduce new fiction books to his repertoire. And with this increase in the number of stories – his sense of play started to develop. He really is the boy that words built. First though vocabulary and then through the power of the narrative structure.
You see I believe in the power of the story. It’s what makes us human. The ability to be part of a story. We do it in every aspect of our lives. We construct narratives about who we are and who we want to be. It is the basic building block that underpins everything we do. I’m not talking about losing yourself in a world of fiction or being able to create magical worlds in your head. I’m talking about even just basic things like talking about your day. Explaining how an argument with your friends has made you feel. Stories are powerful – they construct our everyday lives.
And play is a very big part of this. So listening to my son pushing his trains around a table whilst talking to himself about what he is doing, shows me that his brain is making sense unprompted of the stories in his head. He’s going off piste and off script. He’s really and truly doing imaginative independent play. He’s telling his own stories.
And there is no sweeter sound I could be listening to right now.