I received a letter from a parent complaining about the curriculum in his young daughter's reception class. He believed his daughter would be better occupied practising her reading, writing and number skills "rather than spending time dressing up in the play area". I replied that the school in question offered an excellent education. It gave priority in the early years to teaching the basic skills of literacy and numeracy and, as demanded by the national curriculum, provided a broad and balanced education.
If only I could have taken that parent into the infant and primary schools I visit. He would have been convinced of the great value of "dressing up in the play area". On my travels I have visited doctors' surgeries, post offices, fish and chip shops, bakers, dentists, chemists, florists, hairdressers, libraries, garages, launderettes, corner shops, banks, travel agents, clothes shops, Victorian schoolrooms, strange planets, secret caves, and the cottage of the Three Bears - a whole range of imaginary places where small children enter make-believe worlds and where their language is often at its richest and most creative.
In these play situations children reveal so much about themselves and about their thinking; they learn to relate to one another, act out events they have observed, achieve a greater understanding of the real world from the investigation of a make-believe version, experiment with words, interpret, explain, reflect, consolidate, organise, dramatise, all the while using what the Bullock Report called "purposeful, sociable and consolidating talk".
We see children imitating mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, teachers and other adults with whom they come into contact, attempting to make sense of the world around them and, in the process, developing intellectually, socially and emotionally. Such make-believe activities should not be undervalued but encouraged, respected and evaluated. Adults can enrich the experience by taking part and adopting a role.
I was sitting in the home corner in the reception classroom of a small primary school waiting to be served. The area had been converted into a cafe: the tables were draped in blue checked cloths; there were cups and saucers, pots and pans, serviettes and tea-towels, a large plastic till and a variety of large printed posters and notices: "Fred's Cafe"; "Open for Business"; "Price List"; "NO SMOKING"; "DOGS NOT ALLOWED"; "Dish of the Day". "Try Our Special"; "No Coach Parties". Geoffrey, a boy of five, with a face as speckled as a thrush's egg, red spiky hair like a lavatory brush, and a large, pink apron wrapped around him like a shroud, was busy taking orders from two girls in big hats with huge handbags, who were chattering away about the weather. "Excuse me," I asked him, "are you serving?" He nodded and pushed the menu under my nose.
"I'll just have a drink," I said. He nodded again, departed in the direction of the cups and saucers and returned with a large plastic mug which he thrust into my hands. I drank the imaginary liquid with relish and, smiling at the serious little face, said, " That is the nicest cup of tea I have tasted in a long time."
"It's a Budweiser !" he replied and walked off.
The week before I had been in another home corner, this time an estate agent's. Rebecca was sitting behind a desk on which were arranged pens, pencils, tape measure, calculator, clipboard, telephone, cash dispenser, and toy typewriter. She had a name-card bearing the name Miss R Prentice in large, bold letters. A table had a range of brochures, some made by the pupils themselves; pictures of houses, price lists, posters and an openclosed sign were pinned to the walls.
"I'm looking for a house," I said. "A big one." She pointed to the walls. "There's lots to choose from," she said confidently.
"I like the look of this one," I said, pointing to the largest and most expensive. She shook her head. "Sold, subject to contract," she replied, smiling sweetly. This small child was doing far more than "playing". In this rich and meaningful language environment she was exercising her imagination, mixing reality with pretence, developing her skills as a speaker, reader and writer, learning that language serves a great variety of purposes, using the appropriate vocabulary and building self-confidence.
In another home corner in another infant classroom I found the baby clinic and a small girl, Naomi, clutching a large doll to her chest. "Just feeding the baby," she told me, beaming. Naomi was surrounded by scales, towels, nappies, feeding bottles, a plastic bath and a cot and other suitable properties and costumes to support the activity and stimulate the children's ideas. It was also a world of print, in a variety of forms: appointment book, weight chart, posters on baby care, leaflets, lists, clothes catalogues, magazines and newspapers.
Other children slipped naturally into role as they wandered in and out of the clinic. There was the helpful nurse, the concerned grannie, the worried father and the naughty elder brother. They tried out different roles, learned new words and engaged in important pre-reading and writing activities. One child, the doctor, was wielding a giant plastic syringe, and gave the baby its injection. "To stop it getting poorly," he told me seriously. It was fascinating to watch these small children adopt and adapt different roles, interact with each other, assume a range of characteristics and explore emotions such as fear, joy and anger.
My most memorable experience was in a home corner that had been transformed into an opticians. There was a reception desk, appointment book, telephone, a display of glasses, sight charts, posters, labels and pictures.
"May I help you?" inquired the little girl dressed in a white smock, with a pair of spectacles perched on her small nose.
"I'm looking for a pair of glasses," I replied.
"Take a seat."
"What sort have you in mind ?" she asked.
"I would like a pair which make me look considerably younger."
"We'll see what we can do. I shall have to test your eyes." She displayed letters of gradually diminishing sizes.
"Of course," I smiled.
"Can you read ?" she asked.
Having tested my eyes, she selected a large pair of spectacles from a box. They were bright red and in the shape of a butterfly. I tried them on and peered at her seriously.
"What do you think ?" I asked. She could not contain herself any longer and giggled wildly. Her assistant, also in her daddy's shirt, came in and joined in the merriment.
"Are you laughing at me?" I asked in a sad voice. She nodded, placing her hand over her mouth to suppress the giggles.
"I take a dim view of this," I replied. "I come into your shop, you sit me down, test my eyes, give me a ridiculous pair of glasses and then laugh at me." She stopped giggling and stared for a moment.
"I intend to complain to head office," I said and stood up to go. Before I reached the door, she patted me on the arm before saying gently, "It's only pretend, you know."
Gervase Phinn is an education adviser. He is also a children's author and poet