When Ian and I got married we moved from his bachelor pad to a house, a real house, with more than one bedroom, two bathrooms, a lawn. In a way, this to me was the end of my pretend-play as a young woman, living in apartments and cottages. I was now a woman, hopefully, a mom soon. It took some careful sifting and prioritisation when we put all our treasures and collections together to create our home, a representation of us and not just me or him. Eventually, we got just the right mix. We lived in our first home for six years, and then we had to pack up and redesign this interpretation of us, in our new home, far far away from our Gauteng city life. We once again had to sift and ask do we need this, do we want that.
Little did we know Mishka was going through a similar process. She has a dollhouse, a special little house that we got her for her 4th Birthday. In my day, my dad built our dollhouse, well firstly because he is a builder, and secondly because in those days we didn’t have access to so many creators or online ordering.
My husband loves helping me around the house, but I think it would have taken him months to construct a dollhouse. He is a businessman, and he is also a little bit of a perfectionist (something I love about him). To avoid unnecessary conflict we thought it best to order a house from Carey Burt’s Wendies 4 Kids. The designs and craftsmanship astonished us, we were so happy to find the perfect fit for Mish.
Just like a house is not a home until you make it your own, so is a prefab dollhouse. We created a make-believe home for Mish, where she could be herself, with her own collections; of dolls, miniatures and decorations. I think the second time around, when we set the house up here in Hermanus, Mishka was a little bit more involved, she took part in the whole process, working together, with me and Sam. We brought all her favourites out, to create a space and a garden she had a say in.
This made me think about the significance of this playhouse. Again it plays into a child’s imagination. This is where Mish can act out stories, where she can create ideas and play out emotions. These things, child development researchers, Jerome L. Singer and Dorothy G. Singer believe to be critical features of a child’s cognitive and social development.
Pretend play is as important as physical play.
Systematic research has shown clear benefits of make-believe games in the lives of two to seven-year-old children. Many studies have focused on these benefits including language use e.g. the use of subjunctives, future tenses and adjectives. Researchers call it “theory of mind”. Simply put, children learn that they have their own opinions and perceptions; they learn that these perspectives differ from others’ way of thinking just by engaging in these make-believe games with their friends.
One study raised the idea that by playing different roles, such as the mommy, or the child, or the caregiver, gives children the opportunity to learn social skills. They play and talk to their friends in these roles, naturally, it improves problem-solving and even empathy.
If you look at creative individuals throughout history, one thing stands out, imagination! Creativity! A study by Root-Bernstein showed that Nobel Prize winners were more likely to have had a very colourful make-believe world as children.
How can we encourage imaginative play? Studies have shown that we could talk to our children, we could explain special moments, we could explain the significance of the shapes on the butterfly’s wings, we could show them how the colours and shapes of leaves differ from one tree to another, we could tell them stories at bedtime.
We can light this candle to inspire imagination.
One of my favourite discoveries while reading about pretend-play comes from Psychologist Sandra Russ (2004), because she pointed out the different cognitive processes associated with pretend-play. Fantasy, make-believe, symbolism, the ability to come up with different ideas, story themes and of course organization.
Now there’s another important aspect of something as simple as a dollhouse. For Mishka her dollhouse is her place, she can bring what she loves, I can help her think about where this and that belongs. But ultimately it is all about what she chooses.
She has this one collection of fairies, and it extends to a collection of tiny painted fairy plates. We visited an acquaintance and she noticed these little plates. Dearest Muriel noticed her interest and gave her one or two, this triggered something in Mishka. A natural curiosity about where these plates came from, who did it belong to before it was Muriel’s, are there other plates out there with fairies painted on them?
It turns out collecting is quite a natural human function; we were once hunters and gatherers. Besides survival, objects were also gathered for aesthetic value, it gives the owner a sense of identity, and it can even be a reflection of past experiences.
I love the idea that collecting is just another extension of play, an escape to another world.
Mishka particularly likes clowns and harlequins. What this means, I don’t know at this stage, I only know that perhaps it could teach her something about personal responsibility because she loves it so much, therefore, she will take special care of it. She has a few different types of clowns, some are colourful, others are monochrome, and she organises it in such a way. The clowns with frills don’t sit with the ones with big noses. She also knows exactly how many clowns and how many harlequins she owns. So it helps her keep track of something, to count, to calculate. Perhaps these clowns could spark an interest in the origin of clowns, and she may want to read about it. Maybe there’s another child at school with the same interest and perhaps they could exchange, maybe she can learn about negotiation through play. If I let her purchase her own clowns, with her own money, she could learn about the value of money. “I want it, but can I afford it?”
I have tried to teach her about many things, but I’ve realised none of it can be forced. I may want her to like shells, but she may be interested in rocks. All I can do is to show my interest in her collections, to give her the confidence in her own choices and preferences, thus encouraging self-realisation.
All of this, the dollhouse, the collections, the garden work is a reflection of what Mishka perceives her world to be. I am honoured to be a part of this process, to help her learn about plants and soil, to help her decorate and collect, but I realise that just as my house had to become our house (where Ian and my collections are equally significant), so does Mishka have to know that her ideas, her taste, her likes and dislikes are her own, and she can explore freely.
This reminds me of Mishka’s 5th birthday, it was the first time she showed an interest in the theme, how all these things tie in with child development fascinates me. The more I read about every stage of a child’s life, and how Mishka is steadily following her own developmental path, the more I understand each moment, and the more deeply interested I become in all these aspects of child development.
I hope you will find this journey as insightful and educational.
Watch out for our next post about Mishka’s 4th Birthday.