Imagination is a key component of being human. It enhances creativity, empathy, and happiness. As anyone who’s observed children knows, pretending and imagining are activities kids engage in naturally and with gusto. Unfortunately, adults sometimes come along and squash it. I was reminded of this by a new article by Dakota Antelman titled “A Young Man Thanks the Teachers Who Didn’t Destroy His Fantasy World.”
Sad but true, teachers do sometimes engage in this sort of destruction, as I witnessed myself more than once when my eldest daughter was in kindergarten, before we began homeschooling. I wrote about it in “The Boy With the Boulder,” and I will never forget the dejected look on that kid’s face when the teacher repeatedly corrected his assertion that he was in possession of a boulder.
I was pretty young back then, still a few years away from 30, probably about the same age as the teacher, who I know was just trying to do her job, and therein lies the problem. The teacher was so busy trying to “educate” the boy about the item he brought in for show and tell that she couldn’t really see what was happening right before her eyes: That poor kid in my daughter’s kindergarten class was just pretending; profoundly pretending; pretending in order to understand the world, imbue it with meaning, and to develop into an engaged, creative person with intellectual flexibility and a love of learning.
Despite having the benefit of oodles of research confirming the importance of imaginative play, schools continue to mandate standards-based education, testing from an early age, and forms of pedagogy that stifle creativity, imagination, and more importantly the by-products of letting those things flourish — a strong sense of self, a flexible mind, and an ample capacity for joy, to name a few. Even in my homeschooling world, I still encounter parents who focus less on providing a foundation for children to explore, develop, and learn at their own pace in their own playful way, and more on enrolling in structured classes and activities.
There’s nothing wrong with engaging in structured activities, of course, but sometimes all the product out there, and all the emphasis on enrichment and resources, can obscure the everyday miracles happening right before our eyes. Those made-up worlds that Dakota Antelman talks about are the very currency of childhood. The depth of learning that comes from play can’t really be overstated.
These days, I have the benefit of hanging out with my 18-month-old grandson, once again experiencing the sheer joy of reading books together, playing games, and heading to the library every week for storytime, where the sweet, kind librarian laughs with every kid, graciously accepts the imaginary food they serve her, and engages with them on their chosen pretend paths.
While they may not be able to articulate and absorb it at the level the adults can, the kids understand the difference between fantasy and reality. Allowing them freedom to explore their hearts and minds and the world around them is absolutely key to ensuring that they grow into people who retain the ability to critically evaluate, an ability that seems more important than ever in today’s world.
Sometimes the pretend games kids choose to play can dismay the adults around them. I remember a mom telling me a long time ago that when she repeatedly tried to forbid her 4-year-old son’s gun play, he said with exasperation, “Mom, it’s just pretend.” Touché. In the creative writing groups for kids and teens I’ve facilitated for years, we play with writing exercises and story, and I’ve seen firsthand how kids can use those tools to work through issues that excite, concern, or even scare them. As an adult, I’ve had lots of fun playing and pretending in improv groups, and know that this kind of spontaneous, interactive thinking can be educational, revelatory, and even therapeutic.
I strongly believe that play, imagination, and creativity help bring out the best in people of all ages. Perhaps most importantly, it’s fun, and fun is a great nurturer. So let your kids play as much as they want, and whether it’s tossing a stick to a dog, opening an imaginary restaurant with your kids, experimenting with cooking, improvising on a musical instrument, or anything else you can think of, don’t forget to play yourself.