Parents these days enroll their children in lots of enriching summer camps and classes. Lucky kids. And other lucky kids just putter around their homes or yards pretending. "Let's pretend" were the words that commenced most of childhood play for generations. With rich imaginations children created exotic and fantastic worlds in which they were the main players.
Empty packing boxes became all kinds of little shops and vehicles. A line of chairs in the dining room became a bus or train. A bedspread thrown over a sawhorse became our tent on the Amazon. In our own attic was a box of fancy dresses, suits, hats, and old jewelry. We became Mom and Dad or duke and duchess.
I have nothing against the kind of "enriched childhood" many parents are trying to create. I just don't want kids to miss the richness that comes from their own unique imaginations.
When I see the Kindergarten children in a school where I'm the psychologist with baskets of dress-ups in their play area, I am grateful. This may be one of the few places where these developing minds get to exercise the capacity to imagine. Too often these days children's imaginations are hijacked by television or by toys that require a specific story line.
As children we often had as much fun making our toys as we did playing with them. When I wanted to play secretary, I spent an entire afternoon making a typewriter from a little black box and circles of paper that I carefully cut out, labeled with appropriate letters and glued on the box. When we wanted a swimming pool we spent a whole day digging a hole, placing a tarp and running water. All for about 30 minutes of splashing. Our mother had suggested the location of the "swimming pool" and a few days later a big lilac bush was planted there. (Guess mom had a little imagination too.)
Children still have these impulses and with a little unstructured time will organize an activity, create, and pretend. My daughter was one of those children who absorbed all the tape and cardboard in the house into her creations. One year I gave her a shoebox filled with tape, scissors, cardboard, etc. as a Christmas gift. She loved it, managed to use it all up in short order and continued to gather the tape from her parents' secret hiding places.
I became convinced that one of the ways we encourage imagination is by tolerating messes. Sometimes the imagination of my children resulted in chaos in the living room, where every stuffed animal and piece of doll equipment became part of some elaborate setting. I must confess that it was often tempting to just let them watch cartoons because it created less mess. On the other hand the mess created from too much media can be in their heads rather that on the living room floor. Much harder to clean up.
Some children are natural directors in pretend plays. "You be the princess, and you be the horse and you be the dad." My daughter was one of those directors, and to be allowed to play with her and her friends she would tell her little brother, "You be the monster". It's hard to know what impact her training had on him, but there were times when he played that role too well. Fortunately he escaped the type casting and is now the most wonderful grown son a mother could want.
Toys that have multiple uses and, even better, time in the great outdoors can spark the "pretend potential" in children. I hope every child gets to make mud pies at some point in their childhood. Even pretending with them can help. I'm certain that our now grown children became the creative cooks they are because of the hours we spent pretending to be restaurant patrons and ordering wildly exotic dishes.
One of the best friends of imagination is boredom. We have to let kids be bored every now and then and let them find inspiring materials around to create their own fun. In these critical times we need rich imaginations to solve our many problems and equally important to bring joy and laughter into the world. Even if it means more messes in the living room — it's a small price to pay.