"Play is a very personal experience. For some it is dolls and fights, for others it is climbing and skipping. It is what children do when adults are not there or what the children do when the adults that are there are perceived as honorary children."
-Bob Hughes, Evolutionary Playwork and Reflective Analytic practice, p. 11
How do we allow children to feel comfortable enough around us that they don’t even worry about our presence colliding with their work and play?
If children seek out the adult as a playmate, does that make us an honorary child? Probably not. We are playing in our adult way, modeling problem solving solutions and mediating play amongst other children, the majority of the time. We know where we can go and where we cannot go when we become part of children’s imaginary play - and because we have a consciousness about the play and work that we are engaged in with children, it has more of an agenda.
There are times for this scaffolded play: pinching pieces of clay, digging in the garden, tinkering with electronic things. There is definitely a case for adult support and interaction when children are using devices as a way to promote “active engagement”.
So much of what we learn about the world happens through experimentation and pretense play, and I have always been of the mindset that there is not much room for adults in true imaginative play. Young children “do” imaginative play all of the time, from hiding in the middle of clothing racks at a store to staging stories with dolls and stuffed animals in a bedroom. I appreciate when I get a glimpse at real imaginative play, where the children are not concerned about my presence - they know they are in a safe place for exploration. The example below, from five years ago, either shows my acceptance as an honorary child, or the children's comfort level with me and the video camera.
For my culminating action research at Erikson, I explored imaginative play, and created my own definition: “children's engagement in behaviors that are not readily suggested by the reality of their surroundings”. My interest has always leaned towards the cardboard box set: what if we give children materials and see what they create, what they do, what they pretend? For example, there is daily dramatic play around the topic of Peter and the Wolf in my classroom right now, without many props to suggest that topic. My definition of imaginative play encompasses the play I am observing my classroom now, as does Claire Golomb's definition: "...the youngster's invention of a make-believe world where the actors and their props undergo a magical transformation." (Golomb, The Creation of Imaginary Worlds, p.104)
Children seem to include adults in their imaginary play with subjects that they understand well - scooping rice at the sensory table and offering a “cup of coffee”, hiding behind an adult because “a bad guy is coming”, and the like. From my observations over years and years in a variety of different kinds of classrooms and schools, the tough topics - like power, for example - seem to be reserved for kid-only play. Rarely will a child attempt to make an adult be the baby so they can yell at the baby and see what that feels like - an adult would not be able to fully comply with that request without suggesting that the child “be nice”. When I look back at the trove of videos that I took to execute my action research project, I see children talking about poop and creating play scenarios totally centered on baby diapers - an adult would likely suggest a new topic. Even if I tried to enter play like this, my statements and questions would be loaded and guiding rather than open-ended because that is how I am used to to teaching: working as a mediator, a facilitator, then stepping back and letting children take the lead.
I think that we are honorary children when a child thinks out loud around us, when they feel uninhibited. We learn about the whole child when we see them in a variety of contexts - and being an honorary child means a glimpse at the private child. Children have the right to be happy, to be sad, to be inquisitive, to be angry. When a child truly trusts us, we see all of that. This is especially true if we honor the way they are feeling: not getting frustrated that they are mad, celebrating when they are glad, creating a shared experience that acknowledges that there are ups and downs, and all of that is just fine. When a child knows that we understand and respect them as a whole person (not just when they are happy and “being good”), we are laying a solid foundation for the relationship - and this can extend to the respect and trust of a whole class. This rings true for adult relationships, too - we look for authenticity, not just approval, from our friends and loved ones.
Being an honorary child is not playing the role of the baby, but rather being in the room while children are doing that. As an honorary child, you get to be a fly on the wall. As the three-year-olds in my classroom all turn four, their eyes are simultaneously opened to the children and potential playmates who are surrounding them - who have been there for months, but developmentally, it wasn’t time to play yet. The year begins with children still looking for my lap, my attention, and shared activities with an adult. As their parallel play with their peers turns to cooperative play, I have the pleasure of being that honorary child, that fly on the wall, happy with clipboard and camera.