Create a Literacy Rich Home-5: Kids’ Imaginative Play, Based on Books


Gosh, Rose, age seven, loves to read! And best of all, she’s into imaginative play based on stories and books, and I know that develops reading comprehension.

Yesterday I spent part of the day with her and Calvin, who’s almost five. Rose led me into her room to show me something she’d set up in a corner.

There she pointed to a large colorful pillow wedged between the dresser and the wall. Two dolls were propped up on it, and in front of them was the footstool from the bathroom, serving as a table. On the table were cups and saucers, a teapot, a few plastic vegetables.

A doll's tea party, based on "A Little Princess"

“You know why I’m doing this, Grandma?”

“Tell me.”

Rose rushed to get a book. “Grandma, did you read this book to Mommy when she was little? I think it was hers.”

She held ancient, browned, mildewed hardcover copy of A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I honestly didn’t remember whether I’d read it to her mother or not. I told her I wasn’t sure.

“Well, in this book, the girl thinks that dolls come alive when people aren’t looking, but when people see them, they freeze. So I’m trying to find out,” she said. She clearly was skeptical that her dolls were alive, but at the same time, she wanted it to be true.

“When I look at them, they just sit there,” Calvin interjects. He’s shares the room with Rose, so he has lots of opportunities to test the dolls-are-alive theory. He’s quite sure they’re not.

“Well, I think it’s something worth checking out,” I say, noncommittally. We three glance at each other…we each know dolls aren’t alive, but it’s sure fun to play.

Don’t you love seeing kids involved in imaginative play based on a book? It’s one of the reading strategies that actually develops background knowledge, and that’s crucial to reading comprehension.

After I left the room, I thought of questions I could have asked that might have “PLUSed” or enhanced the experience for her: “I bet you’d like to play with Sara (the Little Princess) for a couple days. What do you think you’d do together?” or “It would be fun to live back then. But I think I’d missing having a car to drive. Is there anything you think you’d miss?”

Next time I see that kind of play, I’ll try to seize the moment more effectively. But still I know it was a rich, inspiring experience for her to create that tea table and scene.

The truth is that in order to play that way, a child has to read a book, or listen to it, paying close attention to the details and description. Then the child has to be resourceful to figure out how to replicate an experience from the story. For instance, Rose had to figure out what she could use from her room and toy box to create a doll’s tea party.

Then think of all the historical detail and context that a child has to take in and process in order to do play like she or he is in another period or country.

And in many ways, when children are playing out a story they are re-writing it; they are getting experience with creating character and even story structure. That sort of play develops empathy and understanding. And it’s certainly theater.

Unfortunately, I know there are children who don’t know how to engage in imaginative play based on books (or movies/TV). It’s tragic that they miss out of some of the sweetest experiences of childhood.

So let’s thank our lucky stars when we see kids really playing imaginatively. Let’s grant them time and space and encourage them in any way we can. For such activity develops brains and hearts, and it contributes hugely to school and life success.

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