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The hunt for Ewoks: How screen time encourages imaginative kids

Despite the warnings about excessive screen time for kids, one mom realizes that her sons flourish as they weave characters they see on television, in movies, and in video games into their own imaginative play.

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    The canopy of trees in Muir Woods, in California.
    James Scott
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“Keep your eyes open. This is where the Ewoks live.” 

The hour drive outside of San Francisco, shrouded in clouds along windy roads, has inspired my husband to say this sentence at least a dozen times.  I’m keeping my mouth shut except to shove in roasted almonds.

There’s no parking when we finally arrive at Muir Woods National Park so we have quite a hike just to get to the entrance.  Hubby pushes the toddler in the stroller and I’m left with 5 year-old Cole. The air is moist and I explain the weird green stuff on trunks of trees as we pass by—moss, something he’s never seen in the desert where we live.

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“Mom, are Ewoks real?”

I keep up my pace and try to stay casual. “What do you think?”

“I think they maybe aren’t real.”  There’s a question in Cole’s voice, like he’s trying on this idea.

We’ve been down the road of pretend versus reality before, what with all the talk of superheroes and such around our house.

“I think you are right. Ewoks are just in the movies.  But it would be cool if they were real, right?”

Cole’s silent for a while, thinking. He doesn’t bite his lip, but sets his mouth just so, raised a bit on the left side.

“I just saw an Ewok’s ear back there!”

By the time we catch up to Dad and brother, Cole’s spotted an additional Ewok arm and one full body of the diminutive hairy creatures. The redwoods are spaced out with smaller trees between and everything is lush and alive. 

It does indeed look with we are in the Ewok forest of “Star Wars.”

Conspiratorially, Cole whispers to me after reporting his sighting to his dad. “We can still pretend, right?”

I nod in agreement, in on the secret and agreeing to keep up pretenses for his father.

Cole’s imagination is more than I can fathom.  In the space of an hour he can be a cowboy, a Ninja, a doctor, a dinosaur, a scientist, superhero, and a dog.  Sometimes with costumes, often without. 

“Wow, you are such an amazing Kung Fu master!” I’ll say when Cole sneaks up and scares me.

“I’m not a Kung Fu master, I’m Spiderman.” The disdain is clear; how could I not know the exact form of his stealth?

Cole thinks of things I’ve never wondered about: What do plants eat? Which is the best planet? Which rocks float? He loves life. He loves his inner world and outer existence equally. Not much makes me happier than eavesdropping on him playing: by himself, with his younger brother, with a friend. 

I don’t do Play-doh; I can’t make myself. I can make animal noises, but I don’t get into character. I’m not a good imaginer, despite my best efforts.  I’m learning to make due. I can ask good questions and not reveal too much unbelief. 

I hear a lot of worry from parents and bloggers and pundits about media sucking the souls from our children, taking away their time for creative play. For us, this hasn’t been the case. Cole and his brother are quite savvy when it comes to Angry Birds, Curious George, Luke Skywalker and friends, and the adventures of Indiana Jones. 

These characters, and others of their own invention, live in my home like visitors, joining us on walks and outings. I appreciate them, though not all the time, for the companionship they give my wee sons and their busy minds.

Anakin and George, dashing adventurers, and even bumbling Inspector Gadget, help my boys dive into imaginary worlds. While building with Legos they'll do voices for the aliens who are attacking the Death Star, for example. Lest you worry about excessive screen time, I'd like to point out that we also play with dinosaurs and play "house" just as kids did before the advent of color television.  

I think of media characters as an add-on to already busy minds; by carefully monitoring who gets invited into our lives, they become part of the parenting team. They teach loyalty, adventure, curiosity – lessons I'm trying to convey, but in a much cooler way than I can.

This parenting gig is hard, especially with kids who think very differently than I do. I hate magic and pretend, and I did even as a kid, which makes me sad when I think of it now. 

My boys and the universe of possibility that lives in their heads is one of the most beautiful aspects of raising them. Pretend is awesome. It provides practice for real life without the mundane interfering. I could probably use a little more time acting out my own stealth ninja moves to see how it builds my own middle-aged confidence.

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