Innovation, imagination and evidence-informed practice
The Sector > Quality > In The Field > The magic of innovation, imagination and evidence-informed practice in early childhood

The magic of innovation, imagination and evidence-informed practice in early childhood

by Freya Lucas

October 31, 2023

We know that infants and toddlers, not just preschool children, can enjoy imaginary play with their educators. But how important is play for children’s development? To learn more, we reached out to Laureate Professor Marylin Fleer to learn more about the world of imagination and pretence ahead of an upcoming Conceptual PlayLabs webinar where the Conceptual PlayLab team will share their learnings from a five-year programmatic study. 


Funded through the Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship scheme, the team uplifted scholarship, unleashed human potential, and became a global influencer in early childhood education. Through studying how 2,087 teachers and a predicted 41,740 children experienced an intervention of a Conceptual PlayWorld, the research unlocked how imagination in play supported imagination in STEM learning. Both the findings and the methodological innovations, necessitated through COVID-19 restrictions, will be showcased in the webinar.


Where imaginative play begins 


Have you ever wondered when children begin to imagine and engage in pretend play with the people around them? Wonder no more.

Charlotte is 16 months old and is watching her grandmother as she lifts a cup to her mouth and pretends to take a sip of coffee. How does Charlotte know that her grandmother is pretending? 

On the same day, Charlotte’s father drops her at her childcare centre, and as he waves goodbye, he notices that the educators have set up a Conceptual PlayWorld of the storybook The March of the Ants by Ursula Dubosarsky and Toby Riddle (2021).

Charlotte is now standing and lifting a spade and pretending to put imaginary food into a plastic basket, just as the ants do in the storybook, and as the educators have been role-playing in the centre.

Pretence and imaginary play 


Pretence is a crucial role in relation to imaginary play. 


During imaginary play, a child may take a stick, imagine it as a horse, and then imagine themselves being a rider. The child has created an imaginary situation, reimagined themselves and the objects they use in play, and are no longer thinking about what they see (the stick) and are instead imagining something else. 


Their perceptual field is imagined differently to what they see. This is an important psychological shift for a child and marks a whole new capacity.


“If we support children in their imaginary play, we are also supporting their learning. We know from the research of the PlayLab that imaginary play develops the psychological function of imagination,” Professor Fleer explained. 


“We need imagination to learn abstract concepts. We also need imagination to think about ‘the past’ and the ‘future’. Imagination allows us to create – to bring things we know and have experienced together in new ways, imagining what does not yet exist.”


“The psychological function of imagination needs to be developed, and we do this in our communities through supporting imaginary play.” 


To see some imaginative play in action with infants and toddlers in a PlayLab concept, see here. 


Pretence needs support


Research being undertaken as part of the Conceptual PlayLab work is showing that  pretence can begin in the first year of life – but only if caring adults support its emergence and development.


Coming back to Charlotte from the beginning of this piece, how did she know that when her grandmother picked up her cup and pretended to drink that it was pretend play? 


Research from Angeline Lillard and her colleagues, exploring the world of mothers, infants and toddlers, has found that some mothers teach their children pretence through: 


  • Amplifying sounds – such as making slurping noises, acting ‘as if’ drinking from a cup
  • Making exaggerated movements – for example, holding a cup up high and lifting it above the lips
  • Slowing down actions – such as lifting the cup slowly
  • Closely watching the responses of their infants to their pretending actions.


This research, however, was conducted in mother/child pairs, and under the controlled conditions of an experiment in a lab. 


The Conceptual PlayLab team wondered if these findings would be the same in a space full of children, adults, real world interactions, and communication…like an early childhood education and care (ECEC) setting. 


“In the living lab of childcare centres, our research has shown that educators who introduce a Conceptual PlayWorld, also do these actions noted by Lillard and her colleagues,” Professor Fleer explained. 


But they do more than this. We found many more wonderful pedagogical strategies that the educators used to introduce, build and maintain pretend play in the centre.”


More information about how these educators created a strong foundation for imaginative play can be found in the working papers created throughout the Conceptual PlayLab journey. 

Different forms of play


To understand the significance of the educators’ change in beliefs and practices, Professor Fleer says it is important to first look at object play, role play, and the different forms of play that are advocated for in the approved learning frameworks and in the documents ECEC professionals use and the literature we read about early childhood education.


“Object play is how we understand infants play,” Professor Fleer said. 


“Play development is said to begin with the object play of infants, to parallel play of toddlers, to imaginary play of preschoolers, to playing games with rules in primary school. Therefore we set up ECEC services with objects – toys to mouth, explore, sound, textures to feel, etc.”


“This practice is based on this belief that infants and toddlers don’t engage in pretence – they don’t participate in imaginary play.”


“We have found in our research that when educators are invited to bring imaginary play into the room, and co-experience with infants and toddlers imaginary play, the infants also pretend.”


A Conceptual PlayWorld intervention


Educators who participated in Professor Fleer’s research undertook professional development (PD) in how to plan and implement a Conceptual PlayWorld. 


“When educators did this PD, we noticed a big change in their beliefs and practices, and a renewed energy and enthusiasm because they were being pedagogical leaders and change agents in their centres,” she explained. 


The self-paced PD is an online resource which is freely available to anyone in the ECEC sector, and which can be accessed here


“This research is changing how educators and teachers think about when imaginary play begins; but also helping them to understand the important role they have in being playful and imaginative with infants,” Professor Fleer added.


A virtual public lecture (webinar) will be held 16 November. Register for the webinar here


Professor Fleer has also invited interested parties to the Monash University Chancellery building to meet the PlayLab team, and to learn more about how Charlotte, and thousands of children like her, are being helped to imagine and engage in pretend play at 16 months of age.

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