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Chapter Books and Imaginative Play

May 20, 2020
By Mara Mauze, PhD, ABPP

            About 6 months ago, I started reading chapter books with my two boys, now ages 4 and 6.  We started with Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.  We then progressed through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and a few Roald Dahl Books, like James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Back in early March we started on The Little House on the Prairie Series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We are now at the very end of the 9th book in this series and this series above all else has captured their imaginations.  It was pure coincidence that we started these books at the same time as we started spending much more time at home and together but the parallels between our life in quarantine and these books has been uncanny.

            Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family for the most part live alone.  In one of the books they live within two miles of a school so she and her sisters attend school when the weather is on their side. At the end of the series, the railroad is being built and they end up living in an actual town.  But other than that, it is just the 5 of them together. She plays with her sisters as she doesn’t have other friends nearby and she learns at home and explores her world.  Surprisingly to me, these books have fueled hours of entertainment, both in the actual reading of the books and in the imaginative play generated by the stories.  As examples, my boys have spent days “gathering wheat” in our yard.  One afternoon about a month ago I called them inside for lunch and they raced into the house, informed me a “blizzard” was coming and they had to eat quickly and finish harvesting the wheat. They inhaled their food and then raced outside again in an attempt to gather all the imaginary wheat before the imaginary blizzard trapped us in the house.  More recently, they’ve been hitching their two stick ponies together in a “driving team” and galloping around the house and yard together, an activity that requires much in the way of communication and teamwork.  They also spent a solid two weeks digging up our entire backyard in an attempt to build a well which then evolved into some kind of road and finally became an enormous mud pit.

            What I love about watching this unfold is they understand that Laura Ingalls Wilder and her sisters were real people.  They ask questions about them that they don’t ask when we have read other chapter books and they ponder what happens to them over the course of their lives after the books have ended.  They recognize the differences (we don’t have to make our own butter thank goodness and certainly our house is more stable than the claim shanty Pa builds in one of the books).  But they also recognize the similarities. Laura spends hours outside. She has chores to do and everyone pitches in and works together for things to run smoothly.  That life lesson has been invaluable over the past few weeks.

            Equally fun for them has been reading The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Werner, with Miss Wendy, an Acorn Kindergarten tradition now taking place remotely.   In The Boxcar Children, four siblings live in an abandoned boxcar and make a home out of it, using resources they find around them.  They create a swimming pool in a creek and acquire dishes and bedding and so forth.  Last Saturday, we went to McArthur Park for a family hike.  There was lots of water crossing one of the pathways due to the heavy thunderstorms the night before.  Without missing a beat, my two boys began gathering rocks and building a dam on the walkway.  They waded, fully dressed mind you, shoulder deep in water to collect rocks and over the course of an hour built a sizeable little pool that was over ankle deep, right on the side of the pathway, just like the boxcar children.

            I often think of imaginative play as involving costumes and fairy tales and big drama.  That’s certainly part of it at times but I never envisioned that reading these books to my boys would foster such creativity on their parts.  Watching what they create has been fascinating.  Watching their attention spans develop as they ask for the books and always ask for “just one more chapter” has been validating as well.  They love to see how many books we’ve read and feel a sense of accomplishment over how many we’ve completed. They also connect with these characters, who are around their ages, and living in similarly challenging circumstances.

            As we move into summer and you are looking for things to do with your children, consider introducing some chapter books.  We started off slow, just reading a chapter a day before bedtime or rest time and expanded as the children requested and their attention span would allow. It’s amazing to see what resonates with your children and what new forms of imaginative play develop.

Happy Reading!