Real Lessons From a World Of Pretend

Amanda showed me an advertisement for a glamorous doll. She said, "This is the most expensive one yet, almost $300."

"Three-hundred dollars for a doll is almost unimaginable to me," I said.

"I know. May I have this one?"

I looked at the back of the page, which had more advertisements on it. "Sure," I said. "Go ahead."

She asked if I had any cardboard. I gave her some from typing-paper boxes. Then I followed her into the kitchen to watch.

She cut the page from the magazine and glued it onto cardboard. "I used to cut them out and then glue them, but that was much harder to do. Now I glue and then cut. That's a lot easier." She smoothed the picture onto the cardboard and set it aside to dry.

Juniper, two years older than Amanda, wasn't interested in dolls. She used pictures of animals and people for cutout toys. She drew many of the pictures herself.

There used to be, and maybe there still is, a philosophy that children should not have toys because toys, especially manufactured toys, inhibit children's imaginations by not casting the children enough onto their own resources. For a while, I advocated that idea, but my wife thought it was silly, outvoted me, and bought toys for our daughters. I'm glad she did.

Juniper and Amanda gradually acquired an entire community of bears, with complex relationships, deep histories, and a great deal of interaction. Once upon a time, we persuaded our daughters that they had too many toys, which took up too much room in our small house. They agreed to sell or give away some of the least-used toys. They gave some of the bears to the Salvation Army.

Several weeks later, Juniper saw Doctor Bear sitting forlornly on a shelf at the Salvation Army store. She found it unbearable to leave him there, so she bought him back for 50 cents, the price she'd paid years before for the large, secondhand green bear needing a home.

We cleaned out an old cabin across the road from the house, and my daughters put many of their toys there. They played there parts of some days. The toys they used most still lived in our house.

We taught our daughters at home. They didn't see their friends very often, because we lived so far from everyone else. Juniper and Amanda drew, painted, wrote, read, sculpted, took care of their daily chores, explored the country around us, played with their toys, and made more toys.

But some of their most active toys were plastic, factory-made toys. Let me introduce you. This two-inch-tall, red cowboy is Bob Olink. Along with several other small, broken toys, he cost a penny at the Salvation Army store. You couldn't shake his hand, because he didn't have any, nor any right arm at all, nor any legs below the knees. That didn't keep him from being an active, obstreperous, obstinate, horse-owning, horse-training, marrying cowboy who would tell you he was in charge of the stables, even though he wasn't. Silver, his horse, was.

None of us approved of the fact that Bob had seven wives, but our approval or disapproval didn't influence him at all.

The stables housed many horses and several other people, including Lank, Bob's brother, Maize Cowboy, and all Bob's wives, to whom Bob was kind, though his obtrusive personality often entangled him in troubles with them and everyone else.

Marilyn, a plastic woman about Bob's size, became concerned about all the parentless baby toys and started an orphanage. The orphanage and the stables were interacting communities, and both suffered chronic shortages of money. Marilyn charged a $5 adoption fee, and that helped.

RABBIT-EARED GIRLIE opened a store, and she would sell anything not essential to the community. Though they didn't like to do it, sometimes the people of the community (and the horses who communicated in words) conferred and decided they had to sell horses to keep the operating money coming in.

I interacted on the fringes of the busy world of toys and imaginary characters. I had a conversation with Bob sometimes, sometimes an exchange with Professor Mungo, a white monkey who advertised himself as a detective but who wasn't as capable of solving crimes as he attempted to convince us he was.

But for the most part, the world of toys belonged to our children. It was quiet, nearly dormant for days at a time, especially in summer, when there were so many other things to do. But even in the busiest times, there was some time to play with and take care of toys.

We met our daughters' needs for love, nurturing, and encouragement. The worst distractions, television, negative peer pressure, and distracting levels of noise and activity from the industrial, consumer culture were not part of their environment as they grew.

Toys and imaginary people became complex characters. Our daughters' imaginary communities dealt with a variety of social situations that reflected the world around us. Their people showed a deep, compassionate concern for living beings and a creative ability to work out those social situations in thoughtful, humane ways.

I left behind all concern about inhibitions to our daughters' imaginations when I saw them incorporate almost everything they encountered into a creative expansion of their learning and of their enjoyment of the world around them.

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