Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Real Pretend

"I'm a fairy," she told me. I guess I didn't respond as she was hoping, so she widened her eyes and raised her voice, "A real fairy!"

As she flitted away, I believed her. "Real pretend" isn't a term I've ever taught children, but it regularly emerges from children as they engage in dramatic play.

"I'm not really dead," a child once told me when I checked on him as he was lying on the ground. "But I'm real pretend dead."

Most children, most of the time, know the line. If an adult presses them, they'll tell you they're children pretending to be dinosaurs or snow leopards or Elsas or Batmen, but from within their games, it's all real. Some of the most intense preschool arguments I've ever encountered are over real pretend things. "I'm shooting webs from my fingers!" "No you're not! Spiderman shoots webs from his wrists!" "Fingers!" "Wrists!"

As the adult, we might be tempted to find it silly, to step in by telling them that Spiderman isn't real, but that is entirely beside the point. The kids already know that Spiderman is pretend, but the story they are creating together is real.

Actor, New York City Children's Theater educator, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Caitlyn McCain describes acting as the process of "trying on" what it might mean to be another person. "Young people do it literally when they try on costumes," she points out. The worst thing you can do, she tells us, is to form judgments about a character prior to "trying on." For instance, even if she knows from the script that the character she's playing is the villain, she has to set that aside because, this real pretend person, no matter how heinously they behave on stage, does not necessarily view themself as evil. There is a reason they act as they do and it is the actor's job to find an answer the question of "Why?"

It's easy to see the connection between what actors do when they truly embody their characters and what children do. Both are seeking to understand, from the inside, what it means to be another person. "We would all be better off," Caitlyn says, "if we made a habit of 'trying on' before forming our judgments."

When children try on costumes, when they step inside another person, they are engaged in radical curiosity. What does it mean to be this person, to think like this person, to experience the world as this person? How does it make me feel? How does it make others feel? We've all heard actors talk about the research they do in order to better understand their characters. Young children do their research from within the characters they embody. 

This, I think, is at least part of what children mean when they say it's real pretend. The "real" refers to the learning.


To watch my full interview with Caitlyn please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Radical curiosity might be just what we need to change the world!

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