The emergence of play… re-enacting, imagining.
Language and literacy learning during early childhood, is an integrated process of storying through play and exploration. Closely observing young children’s experiences, offers adults contextual understanding which enables them to meet early learning needs in holistic ways. In the first of two pieces, Nadia Lubowski reflects on her little son’s pretend play with a doll and how she and other adults engaged thoughtfully with him to support his efforts.
In the second, Anton Lucien’s first story, Nadia describes a literacy event, in which he comes to dictate his very first story, which she writes down for him. Such small stories, are what drive language and literacy development and learning, though in the busy-ness of home and school life, their significance can be underestimated, or ignored.
Anton Lucien was 22 months old when his little sister, Freya Isabella was born. Because he was a toddler, I carried her a lot in a baby carrier. Often I would need to sway or bounce her so that she would fall asleep.
I bought Anton Lucien a little doll months before she was born, as an attempt to prepare him for what was to come. He was so little when I bought the doll, I wondered how he would play with it, if he would even be interested. More importantly I had bought him the doll to prepare him for the arrival of his little brother or sister, and at the same time I honestly had no idea if he would understand the connection. I would talk to him about it, tell him this is a little baby (often pretending like it was a real baby; rocking it, pretending to feed it). I would say things like “There is also a little baby like this in Mama’s tummy”, telling him that my tummy was getting so big because as the baby was growing my tummy was getting bigger. He liked the doll, sometimes included it in his play, but didn’t engage with it often. We tried, in various ways, to include the doll in our lives, each time telling him that soon we will have a baby joining our family.
About 2 weeks after Freya was born, I was in our bedroom talking to Babalwa (our Nanny that has worked with us for years), when we both heard him playing with the doll. He was babbling incoherently (as he couldn’t talk properly yet) and busying himself with the doll, talking to it while unpacking and playing with other toys. The significance of what he was doing, was that he was carrying the little doll while he was playing with his toys, talking to her and including her in his activities. It was unbelievably cute and also fascinating to see how he was absorbed in a little world of his own playing with himself, and now including his baby.
Five days later, I was standing in our lounge putting Freya to sleep in the baby carrier, when I watched the following scene unfold…
Anton Lucien brought his little doll into the lounge. He was carrying a cloth and “shhhh’ing” the baby whilst walking, bouncing and then briefly swaying. Next he walked over to the changing mat and exclaimed “Kaka, windel, kaka” ( (Kaka, nappy, kaka) (see video).
For ages, he changed the baby’s nappy. Up until now, he was re-enacting what he had seen his mommy do, day in and day out, putting the baby to sleep. He had clearly also watched a nappy being changed, knowing now, this is what you do with babies. You put them to sleep and then you change their nappy. The ‘kaka’ he imagined and added it to his play of imitating his mother and father. Everything he was doing he had carefully observed, watched and absorbed as a new reality. He was also drawing on his real-life experience; he was still wearing nappies, so he had an understanding of being changed. He was now playing all he had observed over and over to make sense of his new life with little baby Freya. Without me saying anything to him, he went to the chest of draws in their bedroom and fetched some clothes. I could see he wanted to put these clothes on the doll. So we helped him find some baby clothes that might fit the doll.
Next he tried carrying her in a little towel (which we then helped him tie around his body) and putting her back to sleep. Babalwa sang a song for him to help him settle his little baby.
As a parent, it is not always easy to understand what our children do, we often forget that they are continuously making sense of their world, playing, imitating life and learning new things. Despite my knowledge of early childhood learning, I had forgotten to buy dolls clothes and this precious moment made me realise how important dressing the doll was for taking his play seriously, because he was playing out real life. He gets dressed every morning, so should his little doll.
As a mother and a preschool early childhood specialist, I could see how he was using his real life experience to organise his story of looking after a baby. It was such a wonderful way for me to appreciate how he, and all young children use pretend play to represent and explore their worlds.