Unplugged Worlds

Lucky me. I just had the chance to spend the weekend with a houseful of energetic and imaginative young people. Since I’ve known them all since birth, it has been an amazing journey to watch them grow from toddlers who one day decided it would be fun to pretend to be soup, to children creating superhero worlds, undersea adventures, princess kingdoms, and everything in between. One of my favorite memories is of playing superheroes with the older boys—I believe I had been dubbed Tornedo Blaster, or some such thing. The then-three-year-old girl came along and told me I could not be a superhero, I was a girl and had to be a princess. I had begun to despair of her conceding all superpowers to her brothers when she handed me a bit of plastic and declared. “I have the pink princess wand and you have the blue princess wand. Now we can zap people!” Oh dear. No lack of super powers, as long as they were wielded with style.

Still, theirs is a home filled with fantasy. It made me think about the imaginary worlds I built as a child. I built rocket ship control panels in my closet. We made forts for cavalry in the woodpile, and castle-like fortresses out of snow. A blanket over the card table could be anything from a cave to a gingerbread house. And piles of pillows—well, they were the best hideouts ever! I remember organizing neighborhood circuses, complete with fortune-tellers and dogs that (sometimes) did tricks, and musical dramas on the playground. It makes me smile to think about it all. It also makes me wonder, how do we make sure children continue to create such magic spaces?

I worry about young people whose fantasy worlds all come ready-made. There are so many technical wonders that offer up 3-D worlds ready for exploring, it is hard to imagine a card table and a blanket can still hold much appeal. And yet they do. My young friends are growing up with computer games, Wii, and all the rest. But they can seldom resist the call of a real-life fantasy world, particularly with a willing and silly adult ready to play.

It makes me think of Vygotsky. When we read this great social psychologist’s work on the development of creativity, one of his classic examples is that of the stick horse. It is by interacting with an adult, says Vygotsky, that children come to understand that in play, a stick can become a horse—or a sword, or a doorway. While it is certainly true that all healthy children will explore and experiment, some kinds of imaginative play come best with modeling.

And so, as adults, I think we need to invite children to play more. We think a lot about teaching students to read, add, tie their shoes, and clean their rooms. We may think less about modeling imagination and fantasy. It is so easy to be caught up in the frantic pace of life that we miss the moments when imagination can flourish, and put down roots for creativity yet-to-come.

If parents crawl under that table and envision a snoring bear, young people will, too. If they invent a new superpower (princess wand optional!) or declare the water balloons to be full of shrinking potion, children will follow suit. If teachers imagine the classroom as a giant heart and run through with paper blood cells, they not only teach about circulation,  they also teach about fantasy.

Play makes life more fun. Silly is fine. Blame Vygotsky, and come on down. Your to-do list will still be there tomorrow.

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