Do you remember the deep satisfaction you felt as a child after a day spent playing with your friends? Or exploring the neighborhood on your own where every tree branch or ant hill could mesmerize you for hours? The days and the world around you held endless possibilities.
I vividly remember becoming Godzilla and destroying the houses that I envisioned existed in the piles of snow that were created after the snowplows cleared the roads. I would pick up these little snow cliff homes and "GRRR" smash them into the pavement. Of course no one was actually hurt in my scenarios. The occupants were not at home as they were forewarned of my impending destruction and found shelter and safety with loved ones in another city.
I have a clear memory of playing alone one evening at home, in the large upstairs family room just outside my bedroom. As the sun set beyond the large pane-glass window and the light faded in the room, I invented a super-rocket using only my right shoe. It was just the perfect size to fit my handmade ghost (which I made from a pair of old pajamas and still have by the way - see picture).
Ghostie bravely took off from the carpeted launch pad and traveled to the pool table moon. The billiard balls became moon rocks and the pockets, craters.
Many times I would draw others into my make believe world and what better subject to 'direct' than my little sister. She would eagerly obey all of my directions. Sometimes memorizing a script I had written, as she did with my horror story masterpiece "A Face in the Window" (which I also still have) or improvising a scene after I had given her and her friends the necessary framework.
A popular piece was one I called "Golden Girls". This was long before the television show that came later and stole my title. Mine didn't detail the sex life and living situation of Dorothy, Sophia, Rose and Blanche. The golden girls my sister and her two friends portrayed were named Gold, Silver and Bronze. I must have been into the Olympics at the time. Poor innocent Gold was always wandering off away from her sisters and subsequently being abducted by the alien, played by me. She would be locked up and only rescued after the alien fell asleep. Cue lots of running around and screaming when the alien woke up just as they were escaping.
In the children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon, a little boy uses his imagination to create a unique world with the aid of one purple crayon. He creates dangerous and potentially damaging circumstances but draws his way to safety. Harold has a quick mind, inventive spirit and pure imagination.
I think one of the reasons this book has retained its popularity is because children and adults recognize a bit of Harold in themselves. Children live it. Adults remember it.
The imagination is never so evident as when children are at play. The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget is often quoted for writing "Play is child's work". As I live with this notion I believe more and more that he is right.
A new study I read recently explores the importance of play and cautions us on the changing landscape of it. The article pinpoints 1955 as a turning point in all of this because that is when the first toys were marketed on television. Howard Chdacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University says "It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys. Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object".
The objects I used to play with as a child, like my shoe, held endless possibilities. My right shoe could become a rocket, a boat, a cave or a person. Today children are buying toys that directly represent what they are meant to be. A light saber from Star Wars will be used only in that capacity. So we are limiting the imagination.
Psychologists today believe that this, along with the elimination of free play in the lower grades to make room for more academic pursuits and achievements is changing kids' cognitive and emotional development. One study found that "Today's 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and todays 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-olds 60 years ago".
During play children must negotiate the rules. If you have ever spent any time watching children play you would have noticed that they establish rules beforehand, such as roles each one will play (like "I am the mommy and you are the baby") and if those rules are broken someone gets yelled at. Playing at make-believe has shown to foster children who are more responsible and demonstrate a willingness to assist others.
They also learn in games like "Simon Says" and "Red light, Green light, 1,2,3" how to monitor their behavior. They must decide when to hold back from acting and self regulate. This is called the Executive Function. Poorly developed executive function according to this article is "associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ!".
Perhaps we ought to lighten up a bit and let kids be kids. They seem to know how to do it better than the "experts".