While I was observing on a preschool play yard today, I saw what I thought must be a train, built from wooden crates and tree stumps. Several children were scurrying around it, placing wooden blocks on top of the stumps, and gathering sticks. They climbed on, and climbed in. One child at the rear of the train yelled, "All aboard!" The next thing I knew, the children climbed out, ran around the yard, and hopped onto tricycles, loading them up with the blocks. "Special delivery" they shouted! "We're in Africa!" "The animals need their presents!" After several minutes, they climbed on board again, and returned to school. They gathered the blocks and loaded them up, then climbed on board what they then called the "Magic Train," and headed to Africa once more.
This imaginary play lasted a good 30 minutes. As I watched them, I couldn't help but notice the level of cooperation and sophisticated organization that this scenario required. The building of the train was a collaborative effort. One child placed a crate in front of a tree stump, and others followed suit. This required an understanding of nonverbal communication. The scenario itself, going to Africa to deliver presents to animals, was a collaborative design, incorporating various ideas from different members of the group. The ability to collaborate, compromise, and cooperate takes cognitive flexibility and perspective taking skills. And acting out the fantasy play required negotiating as well as communication skills as the children assigned roles, determined the script, and came up with a plan. One little imaginary play scenario takes quite a lot of brain power. When you stop to think about the effort required to execute, it becomes clear why imaginary play is such a central ingredient to early learning.