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The Case For Make Believe

In The Case for Make Believe (New Press, 2009), author and Harvard child psychologist Susan Linn explores the growing threats to our children’s capacity to make believe, and why this trend spells disastrous consequences for their intellectual, emotional and social development. In this passage, Linn explains why imaginative play sets the foundations for children to thrive. Babble also spoke with Linn about why kids no longer know how to play.

I have been immersed so long in exploring the relationship of play to children’s experience that it’s sometimes hard for me to believe everyone is not as passionate about it as I am. But I am rescued from this myopia whenever I leave the office. When I bring play into a conversation I find that most people’s eyes glaze over. I imagine they’re thinking, “But play is so frivolous! Why should I even care about it?”

Why indeed? I attended a celebration recently that was populated mostly by adults and just a few small children. I was doing what grown-ups do at such occasions – laughing and talking with friends and family – when I felt something brush by my leg and looked down to see two small girls weaving in and out of the crowd. “Sister, sister,” one cried to the other, “the witch is coming! Run! Run!” Intent on their fantasy, oblivious to the adults around them, their exuberance and palpable joy was a wonder to behold. That it evokes such delight is reason enough to place play high on my list of passions. But there’s so much more. The capacity to play is a survival skill.

Most child development experts agree, for instance, that play is the foundation of intellectual exploration. It’s how children learn how to learn. Abilities essential for academic success and productivity in the workforce, such as problem solving, reasoning, and literacy, all develop through various kinds of play, as do social skills such as cooperation and sharing.

I appreciate and value these aspects of play, but my true passion lies elsewhere: in exploring how play is linked to creativity and to mental health. My particular passion is make believe, or pretend play, which I think of as creating fantasy characters, imagining different realities, and transporting ourselves to pretend worlds other than the one we live in. Children’s make believe is rooted in their unique experience of people and events. When given the opportunity to play, it comes naturally to them and serves as an essential experience of self-reflection and expression. It is a gift, both to children and to the adults who care for them, and can be a window into their hearts and minds.

When allowed to flourish, each child’s pretend play is unique – like fingerprints. A four-year-old of mixed religious heritage speaks through a dog puppet to say, “My heart is Jewish, but the rest of my body is Christmas.” A six-year-old facing surgery turns the same dog into a doctor. A five-year-old just back from a dentist appointment tells it to “open wide.” Another child transforms it into a mom kissing her child good-bye at day care. In another child’s hands, with a different family experience, the dog as mother watches implacably as her child drowns. Some children pass up the dog completely, choosing to speak through a hippo, a dragon, or a cow. A few shun my puppets altogether during our sessions, preferring to draw, build, or make music.

Pretend play combines two wondrous and uniquely human characteristics – the capacity for fantasy and the capacity for, and need to, make meaning of our experience. By fantasy I mean imagination, daydreams, and the stories we may or may not share with others that design the future, reshape the past, make new things possible, and illustrate powerful feelings. By making meaning, I mean the drive to reflect on and wrestle with information and events so that they make sense to us, enrich us, and help us gain a sense of mastery over our life experience.

Pretend play thrives in the intersection between the inner world of fantasy and inner experience and the external world that exists in time and space. Unlike daydreams, or most of our interactions with other people, it exists neither wholly in the inner nor wholly in the outer world – but it can shape both. Children’s make believe play allows them to bring to light dreams and fantasies that, once they are no longer held inside, can be examined and reflected upon, and even altered by someone else’s input.

I feel an increasing sense of urgency – the kind of urgency that environmentalists feel about saving the rain forest – about preserving time and space for children to play. Next to love and friendship, the traits that play nurtures – creativity and the capacity for making meaning – constitute much of what I value about being human, yet they have been devalued to the point of endangerment by the prevailing societal norms characterized by a commercially driven culture and bombardment of electronic sounds and images.

I’ve noticed in the past few years – an observation reinforced by my colleagues who study young children and preschool teachers I talk to – that I can no longer assume that children know how to play creatively. The children I see at the day-care center often begin our sessions by picking up animals or little people figures and reenacting the exact same cartoon violence so popular on television, bringing nothing of their unique experience to their play. With sometimes just a little effort, I can help children pretend if I talk for various characters, or ask open-ended questions, or introduce themes that I know are important to them. “Does it talk?” a three-year-old girl asks about a baby doll she has just been given. “Yes!” I answer and the pretend that the baby is crying. “Ma-ma,” the baby wails in my voice. The little girl opens her arms. She envelops the doll in a big hug, comforts it, and launches into an elaborate scenario in which the baby doll’s parents get dressed and go to a party, leaving the doll with a babysitter. With great glee, she spends several minutes reenacting this scene with minor variations.

Yet children shouldn’t have to be taught to play. When they are given the time and opportunity in the context of even a moderately nurturing environment, play comes naturally to them. Babies are born equipped to learn about the world through interactions with caring adults, with their own bodies, and with the objects, textures, sounds, tastes, and smells they encounter.

From 1997 to 2002 the amount of time that six-to eight-year-old children spent on creative play diminished by about a third. Given the importance of play to children’s lifelong cognitive, social, and emotional health, one would think that we would do everything possible to preserve space for it in our children’s lives. Yet the exact opposite is happening. Studies on how children spend their time suggest that the time children spend on creative, pretend play is diminishing. A recent survey on children’s time use suggests from 1997 to 2002, over the course of just five years, the amount of time that six-to eight-year-old children spent on creative play diminished by about a third.

In spite of the researched links between play and learning, government policies such as No Child Left Behind promote rote learning at the expense of quality playtime even in kindergarten. Time allotted to recess – another in-school opportunity for play – has been severely diminished, or cut out altogether, all across the country. Nor are kids left with much time to play outside of school.

These days, parents who can afford to are enrolling even their youngest children in structured enrichment classes or organized sports. Even parents who stay home with their children and want them to have unstructured playtime complain that all the other kids in the neighborhood are busy with after-school sports and activities. Working parents without access to adequate, organized child care may rely on television to keep children occupied at home. And, in many neighborhoods, parents feel that their children aren’t safe playing outside.

Babies arrive in the world primed to play. From the earliest days we join in that play when we mirror their gestures and sounds, allow them opportunities to sustain interest in their discoveries, and when we give them opportunities to rediscover what’s familiar. Initially play manifests in movement, touch, and vocalization – in the sensory pleasure babies derive from exploring the world – in actions and activities that they repeat over and over for their inherent pleasure. I was changing my nine-month-old granddaughter’s diaper when suddenly Isabella made a rather unusual grunting noise – like “hmpf!” – and looked at me expectantly. The funny thing was that she sounded exactly like her older sister being silly. Matching her tone as exactly as I possibly could, I grunted back. She smiled a little and grunted again. So we spent a few happy moments together making silly noises at each other just because we could.

At first, babies play by attempting to repeat sensual pleasures, master physical challenges, and investigate the principles of the physical world. That funny, frustrating period when babies repeatedly and deliberately drop toys, spoons, and everything they can get their hands on is really an exploration of gravity. Those endless games of peek-a-boo are actually manifestations of early grappling with a lifetime of departures and arrivals, of comings and goings, and about testing a newly formed understanding that people and objects exist even when they are out of sight.

I was lucky enough to be visiting a friend at the moment his seven-month-old daughter made an astounding discovery – her knees. Squealing with glee, she extended her arms to her father, expressing in no uncertain terms her desire to stand up. As each tiny fist gripped tightly to one of his fingers she pushed up from her toes, and straightened to a standing position. After a few wobbly, upright moments she began to squat, bending her legs slowly. Then, like an inebriated ballerina rising from a plie, she teetered up once more. Beaming with pride, she repeated the sequence again and again and again.

Eventually she noticed a favorite toy kitten on the floor. Holding on with only one hand, wobbling even more ferociously, she began to reach for the kitten only to find that 1) it was too far away to grab and 2) it was at ground level. With great deliberation, she extended her free hand toward the car. Tottering precariously, completely focused on her mission, she began the glorious process of bending – and was saved from an undignified tumble by her father’s protective arm. She allowed herself a brief rest on the floor and, with joyful determination, began the process anew.

Babies don’t have to be taught to play. Babies don’t have to be taught to play – they are natural sensualists and explorers – rather we prevent them from playing. I remember wandering around an ancient Buddhist temple in southern Korea on a glorious fall day, the grounds filled with families. I noticed a baby of about seven months – old enough to sit by himself but too young to be mobile – sitting in the middle of a rather dusty patch of bare earth. Clearly, he had been placed there by his doting family – mother, father, grandmother, grandfather – so that they could take a picture of him. While I don’t understand Korean, it was pretty obvious from the gestures and interactions of the four adults that they very much wanted him to look up into the camera and smile. The baby, however, had a different idea. He was bent over, running his hands through the dirt. Intent, completely engrossed, he traced patterns with his fingers. Ever so slowly, he picked up some of the dirt and gradually let it sift through his fingers. His grandmother pulled at him, cajoled him, and pleaded with him to look up at his daddy, who had his camera ready for a big smile – but to no avail. Despite the best efforts of four determined adults, he would not abandon his sensual, scientific, and playful exploration of dirt.

Children develop at different rates, but at some time toward the end of their second year an extraordinary change takes place in their play. They acquire the amazing capacity to make something out of nothing. It’s not just that they can hold the visual memory of important people and objects in their heads, but they have the power to conjure up images at will and alter those images in any way they please. The early experience of pretending lays the foundation for creating – and delighting in – whole worlds that no one else can see.

Excerpted from The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World by Susan Linn (New Press, 2009). Buy the book here.

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