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Literal Thinkers and Language

Children are literal thinkers. I recall once asking my then two year old son if he’d like to “give me a hand” opening a garage door. When he reached out his hand to me, I was reminded that colloquial expressions are beyond the grasp of young children.

Reading A Chocolate Moose for Dinner and The King that Rained, both written and illustrated by Fred Gwynne, enhances our understanding of the literal way children think. With humor, he plays with words that confound all learners of English and send our imaginations on flights of fancy or fear, depending on what’s being said.

If we live in Alaska, a moose might amble past our house while we’re eating dinner, but he’d not be chocolate. What do you mean by calling chocolate pudding mousse anyway? Children know rain. It falls from the sky. They can walk in rain and splash in puddles, but reign? That sounds like rain but is altogether different. Even for adults imagining one word being used for another brings fanciful and humorous situations to mind.

On the other hand, hearing that Grandmother has “a frog in her throat” could cause a kid to worry. How did that happen? What’s Grandmother to do? How’s the frog going to get out? Could it happen to me? Horror of horrors. Think how easily a hospitalized child might misunderstand a term and imagine something altogether different from what the speaker said. Think IV and ivy. The child hears the nurse say she’s going to start an IV, and not knowing what that means, the child thinks ivy, the plant growing in the parkway outside her home.

Many words are confusing. Take bear and bare. A favorite teddy bear might well have been loved and cuddled so often that he’s become thread bare. Then, too, words used as both nouns and verbs in the same sentence can be amusing or bewildering. Take, for instance, the child who could not bear to part with his bare bear.

What other pairings of words come to mind that might confound and confuse a literal thinker and amuse those of us who enjoy word play? We’d be delighted to hear your favorites.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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Throw Away the Script and Engage the Imagination

PlayopolisToys sells open-ended toys that engage children in self-directed play. Children use their imaginations and create their own play scenarios. They draw on their knowledge and experiences, and this includes books that have been read to them as well as movies and television shows they’ve watched. Although children may incorporate characters and story lines from these experiences, the toys do not dictate their play.

Licensed products, on the other hand, come with an implied script which suggests how the child will play.

Think about how a child plays with a classic wooden rail play set. Starting with the basics the child learns to connect and disconnect individual pieces and lay out track, thus refining fine motor skills and exploring spatial relationships. The train is kid-powered with the child using his imagination to create a scenario. Perhaps the child has ridden a train or visited a train museum. Those experiences inform his play.

As the child gains experience, he’ll likely want to create more complex lay-outs. This enhances problem-solving skills as he moves from visualizing to creating the “perfect” lay-out. He may want to add trains, perhaps different kinds, from the classic steam engine to diesel locomotives and bullet trains. He may want freight trains and passenger trains.

Often children incorporate other toys to bring a whole new dimension to rail play, adding an airport or a harbor where the train takes on freight or a zoo awaiting delivery of new animals. With blocks children can “develop the land” along the tracks, laying out a farm teeming with animals or a city complete with towering skyscrapers. The possibilities are limited only by their imaginations and available materials.

The point is: the classic toy grows with the child and the child with the toy. On the other hand, a licensed rail play set comes with a script that limits the imagination. Who needs to “reinvent the wheel”? The kid knows what’s what about this train and its adventures. He may embellish or otherwise alter the script, but the essence remains a given.

Of course, a child familiar with the stories behind the licensed product may choose to act out some of that character’s adventures with a classic wooden train set. That’s an option, but only one among the many that come into the child’s mind.

Albert Einstein said “imagination is more important than knowledge.” We agree. What do you think? Let us know. We’d be delighted to hear and share your observations on children and the importance of open-ended imaginative play.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play