Imaginative Play

“What Do We Do With the Mad That We Feel?”

Questions and Reflections From a Veteran Pre School Teacher

How do we help our children feel safe?

How do we help them understand their feelings?

How do we show and express our confidence in their ability to be kind?

How do we model compassion?

Each day across the land, preschool teachers and parents of young children struggle with these questions. In light of current events, even those of us who have been at this for a long time feel as though we are still wrestling with these questions.

A parent recently reminded me that Fred Rogers had some relevant insights about what children see on screens. In the wake of the recent horrific events in Pittsburgh and Louisville, and the fires in California, and inspired by a classroom filled with Superheroes on Halloween to reflect — on children, violence, and “saving the day,” I offer these reflections.

In our classroom this autumn, there was an explosion of Power Ranger play. Since this consisted mainly of weapons, large sudden movements, and fighting, I paused the play, and asked some of the children some questions. This led to great conversations and artwork among a few of the children, regarding both Power Rangers and a Big Foot monster, who had also entered their play.

One thing that really struck me was that the only thing the children were able to tell me about Power Rangers, aside from their different colors, is that “they fight.” Or, “they fight bad guys.” The term “bad guys,” seems to mean simply, the “others,” the “not us.” At this point, that is their take-away from whatever they are watching on screens. So that is what they are bringing to their classmates who have never seen shows with fighting.

Superheroes and “bad guy” play are not new, nor is violence in our country. In my kindergarten classrooms decades ago, alongside children who had parents deployed in the Gulf War, or in jail for violent crimes, I was dealing with Power Rangers. To be honest, it’s a challenge to have certain TV characters infused into our classroom of 3 and 4 year olds. It is even harder now than it was 25 years ago, because screens, and hence the graphic images of fighting that the children see, have become both larger, and smaller and portable, and more prevalent. Images of both real-life and make-believe violence  — in our living rooms, in cars, even in children’s bedrooms — live side by side on these screens. 

Although in our classroom the Power Ranger play has dissipated somewhat, it’s still there. The “Monster” play continues, and is particularly frightening for some of the students. A couple of my older students have learned to say, “it’s just pretend.” But for these same four year olds, and certainly for three year olds, pretend monsters — as well as teeth-baring fictional wolves, an angry-looking witch, or any one of a number of images that might be marketed for young children – can and do feel extremely threatening. Distinguishing between pretend and real is a complicated process, and does not even evolve along a predictable continuum. One minute, monster play can elicit shrieks of joy from a child; the next minute, the same child is running into my arms for comfort. In the light of day, monsters stimulate laughter; when darkness falls, tears.

Imaginative play is the work of young children, and for our three and four year olds, it is an exciting and constantly evolving and developing exploration. It grows their brains, builds social skills, and leads to joy and excitement, frustration and fear. In a group of 16 young children, we can see all of these emotions simultaneously. As teachers, we constantly scan and monitor, join and guide.

Getting the children to pause their play, and talk and paint about it, was just my initial response. I imagine in the future we might be having conversations in our classroom about different kinds of power — about being strong and capable, and about distinguishing between superpowers and real powers. We have started to have conversations about the FEELINGS we have — feelings that might cause us to hurt others, or to help others. And we will always have sand and art materials available for them to express, play out, and record their feelings.

Mr. Rogers points out that when bad things happen and when people are hurt, it is reassuring to “look for the helpers.” We want to teach the children that WE can BE the helpers, and that fighting and hurting others is not helpful; that it is, in fact, harmful. Even when others are not hurt, we can always practice being helpful. It is possible to develop our “helping” powers.

I offer a few videos. I hope you might spend a few minutes watching them. If nothing else, Mr. Rogers reminds us that being present with young children, and available to listen and talk about what they are feeling, as well as what they might be seeing on screens, is so important. Even though some of these clips are from decades ago — before ipads, smartphones, enormous HD TV’s, and the current hate crimes — I think he is also a good reminder to limit and very carefully control our children’s exposure to screens. 

The questions will always be there. So will our love for our young children.

By |2018-11-19T14:02:37-04:00November 19th, 2018|

Reggio Magic: Open-Ended Playthings


Something old: Last week, I put a new invitation out on a table: freshly made lavender-scented play dough and familiar tools —  our play dough scissors and small kitchen knives.

Something new: A basket of shiny glass stones, and a basket of small assorted stones from outside.

All week the children played with them, enchanted by the feel of the stones — smooth and rough, shiny and dull, of different weights. They pressed them into the playdough, hid them in the dough, stacked layer of stones and dough, each child calmed by the lavender, and absorbed in a little world of their own making.

Over the week we saw ice cream, burgers, snowmen, islands, an apple, Mickey Mouse, a house, a road, snakes, a rock castle, a cake. As they played, they talked about their creations; their hands squeezed, rolled, cut, and pinched; they became more familiar with scissors; they talked about colors; they shared stones and tools; they started to notice one another’s creations and became inspired to do more.

Once again, for the millionth time, I fell in love with open-ended playthings.

Open-ended materials for young children are materials without a pre-determined script. They can be used and manipulated in many ways, limited only by the children’s imagination. Not only do children practice motor, language, and social skills with them, but they also encourage imaginative play. Imaginative play — the cornerstone, the essence, and the driving force of young children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development.

Watching the children so enraptured by the play dough and stone combination, I thought it might be fun to choose another familiar classroom open-ended material and reflect on its many uses.


One of the most important objects in our classroom is our basket of brightly colored silk scarves. How does a simple silk scarf make its way through the school day of our two- and three-year-olds?


Under the scarf, we hide ourselves, toy animals and little people, a drum, a block, a ball! Even more fun, we hide each other!


We dance, parade, wiggle, and shake. We wave the scarves high and spin them around us. We run across the gym with them, flying like the wind!


We use it as a blanket for ourselves–and for our babies!


We hide UNDER it. We pass it THROUGH our legs. We drape it OVER us. We sit ON it. We wave it AROUND us. We wave it ABOVE us. We put them IN the basket.


We look through it and see the world tinted in color.


On a picnic!  (the scarf is our blanket) To the beach! (the scarf is our towel) To the store! (the scarf is our coat) To the rescue! (the scarf is our cape).


We use the scarves to swaddle them, and to lay over them on their beds.



When we wave them hard, they make a little “snap.” When we cover the big drum with them, they muffle the drum beat.


They flutter over our faces and our arms. They feel soft on our skin.


Sometimes while wearing their scarves, the children go about their business, cooking in the play kitchen, drawing, or playing in the dollhouse.

At these times, the scarves are like Superman’s transforming cape, empowering the children with greater focus and imagination, and enabling their young brains to soar!


By |2018-02-23T06:21:28-04:00February 23rd, 2018|

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Gala 2019

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