Two little ones galloped onto my evening train, finding a spot on the pole to hold onto before the train departed. I smiled as I listened:
“Darling, where should we go today?”
“Why, to get our hair done, of course.”
“Of course. We’ll get our hair done downtown.”
Completely in character, using gestures and different voices, their dialogue continued.
Kids love to pretend. In fact, fantasy play is one of the four kinds of play kids engage in, and in my experience in early childhood, it’s the most frequented. If you’ve read Purposeful Play, by Kristine Mraz, Alison Porcelli, and Cheryl Tyler, you’re familiar with the magic that can happen when we create spaces for kids to pretend.
Mraz and Tyler talk about creating opportunities for fantasy play (along with the other kinds) throughout the day in this short video: https://blog.heinemann.com/different-types-play-fit. If you are curious about the multitude of benefits fantasy play has on cognitive and social-emotional development, check out this article on Scientific American.
We encourage fantasy play at choice time and outdoor play. We teach readers to pretend to be characters as they read. We invent stories in math when we play with numbers. When role-playing is a natural and essential part of childhood, why wouldn’t we encourage our young writers to make-believe?
When I began creating space in our curriculum for independent writing projects last year, I noticed many kindergartners naturally gravitating toward fantasy writing. The same thing happened with my current class. With just weeks left, I decided it was just the right time to dabble in teaching a pretend story unit.
I leaned on our narrative writing unit for support with planning. It was simple to modify teaching points and anchor charts from true to pretend stories. I used narrative progressions and rubrics to assess and plan for small groups.
Keeping big goals in mind, which for my group of writers was elaboration and conventions, I planned a menu of teaching points (I loved Ruth Ayres’ idea of using “magic” to write pretend stories and included it in my teaching): Fictional Narrative Teaching Points
I launched the unit with transparency: “Writers, I was walking by our writing center and couldn’t help but notice our list of kinds of writing. Look at how much it has grown this year!” I began naming each kind of writing, and thought aloud about which genres we have become experts in, and which we can still study together, inviting kids to join my thinking. I pointed to the card that said Pretend Stories and paused.
“I’m hearing lots of you say that we haven’t learned about writing pretend stories yet. It would be so much fun to study pretend writing together. Can I tell you a little secret? [I leaned in.] I don’t know a lot about pretend writing yet. I haven’t tried it very much as a writer. Do you think we can learn about it together?” Excitement buzzed around the rug.
“Let’s get started right away! When writers want to learn about writing a new genre, they can study books by their favorite authors, use all they know about similar kinds of writing, like true stories, and rely on each other as experts.”
We brought out our True Story anchor chart and revised it for Pretend Stories.
We studied Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers and Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, by Mo Willems as mentor texts. These worked well because they had simple problem-solution story structures, pop-out words, a variety of punctuation, and action lines in illustrations. We read many pretend stories in our library and invented stories during transitions throughout the day. A Stop-Motion center opened at choice time, which kids used to bring pretend stories to life using figurines, legos, and modeling clay.We acted out the stories we read and the stories we wrote.
Before long, superheroes, mermaids, talking animals, and monsters filled our classroom. Not everything was fantastical. Some kids used their family and friends to create stories that could really happen.
Pretend writing was not only a super engaging writing unit, it lifted the level of play during choice time, as kids began to think about setting, new roles, dialogue, and potential problems for characters. At an age where kids want to bring their dreams to life, writing became the place where anything is possible!