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January 11, 2019

Dancing Bananas: Part 1

Contributed by: Jennifer Horner, Director of Education Development

Imaginary play is one of THE most fascinating phenomena of our human existence (my opinion) and I am always awestruck when I get to witness it. The idea that young humans regularly use imaginary play to work towards and surpass developmental milestones is both perplexing and astounding to me. So let me tell you a story about some dancing bananas.

Picture a classroom full of three and four year olds. It has plenty of natural light, books to snuggle up with, an easel and art materials, an inviting “kitchen” set with baby dolls to care for, a bin of sparkly goop to scoop, pour, smell, and stretch, buckets upon buckets of things that they can stack, connect, measure, count, squish, throw, kick, and spin. On this particular day, there’s also a large cardboard box to turn into whatever their hearts desire.

There’s a little girl with two plastic bananas, dancing them on top of the box in the middle of the room. She’s singing something and giving them voices at the same time. All of a sudden, a well-meaning adult swoops in with two puppets and says: “You probably want these instead.” She places them next to the child and walks away.

Those “well-meaning adult” moments are part of all of us! Sometimes our awareness of the moment is out of tune with the child’s simply because our brains are operating differently than theirs.

The magic of whatever those dancing bananas were blows out like a birthday candle and the child’s body language shifts into confusion. She had a plan. She was in the zone. She was acting something out that was important to her and in a well-intended moment, it was over.

Sometimes, when we intervene, we miss out on the pure magic of children deep in the abyss of imagination– as if the rest of the world has disappeared. When we step back, we learn a little more about the child, what makes her tick, what she’s interested in, and what she’s processing in her life.

In these moments, the best thing to do is:

  • Avoid getting too close at first.
  • Pretend to be doing something else.
  • Let the magic unfold with a careful ear using your best side-eye.
  • Move closer slowly and see if there’s an opportunity for you to join in without extinguishing the imagination in motion.

A child’s brain has the capacity to connect multiple pieces of their experiences all together, without the need to immediately categorize it. Their minds are boundlessly inquisitive, wide-open and function in ways that our well-meaning-adult-brains do not. Imaginary play is one place where you can actually see and hear it happening… and it’s quite remarkable.

So why does imaginary play surface the way it does in early childhood? Is it necessary? What are the benefits? I’ll be back next week with Dancing Bananas: Part 2!