The development of imaginary play
While the definition of play is quite broad, Professor Fleer’s work has focused on imaginary play.
“Imaginary play can begin quite simply where a child can change an object’s meaning, for example a wooden block can become a car,” she explains.
“As the play matures and the child and adult engage in more complex play, children begin to use their words and gestures to indicate how they have changed the meaning of the object, so for example rocking and shushing a teddy bear to indicate it’s a baby.
“Then the next step is that the child spends longer talking about the rules of play and they will leave the play situation to direct the play.
“For example, if a rule was broken during the play, the child will say, no, your baby can’t do that because we are in a hospital and all the babies are sick. Then they will jump back into the situation to keep playing.
“Finally, as the play becomes even more sophisticated, children will remain inside the play situation and use the narrative of the play to correct the other participants.
“For example, they will say, ‘this baby has a fever so it must be sick’.”
How to add to play
In a 2021 report, Professor Fleer and her colleagues found a gap in the research on children's science learning especially in the first three years.
Developed by Professor Fleer, Conceptual PlayWorld is an evidence-based model of intentional teaching using STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts.
“Conceptual PlayWorld is an imaginary model created by an educator where young children are invited to go on imaginary journeys, meet and solve challenges, and learn STEM concepts – all while playing,” says Professor Fleer.
Dr Rai explains that parents can register for the program for free which is delivered online.
While it can seem quite daunting, Dr Rai shows how easy it is for parents to extend their child’s imagination and introduce STEM concepts.
“In one session, we started off with the popular children’s book, Time for Bed by Mem Fox, which is about animals saying goodnight to each other,” he explains.
He says that while the book has many different concepts, in one module they focused on light and shadows.
The educator helped families set up environments where children could experience shadows, for example a darkened bedroom with a torch.
“To extend on that, we held a shadow dance, with light and music so children could play with the shadows,” he says.
“They could observe the difference in everyone’s shadows and how shadows change depending on the distance from the light source.”
The next stage was introducing a meaningful problem for the children to resolve with their carer.
“In this example, it was a story of a young child who entered a dark room and couldn’t see their own shadow and why was this and how could we help that child,” he explains.
“Conceptual PlayWorld is about providing joy and fun for children and adults in creating collective imaginary situations that show children new opportunities in their play,” Dr Rai emphasises.