Do Kids Engage In Inventive Play Only Because We Want Them To?
T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford, had a fascinating column in yesterday’s New York Times, in which she wonders why American adults so avidly encourage pretend play in our children:
“What does it mean that our society places such a premium on fantasy and imagination? ‘No culture,’ observes the child psychologist Suzanne Gaskins, ‘comes close to the level of resources for play provided by middle-class Euro-American parents.’
In many traditional societies, children play by imitating adults. They pretend to cook, marry, plant, fish, hunt. ‘Inventive pretend,’ in which children pretend the fantastic or impossible (enchanted princesses, dragon hunters) ‘is rarely — if ever — observed in non-industrialized or traditional cultures,’ Gaskins says. That may be because inventive play often requires adult involvement. Observing the lack of fantasy play among the Manus children in New Guinea, Margaret Mead noted that ‘the great majority of children will not even imagine bears under the bed unless the adult provides the bear.’
Westerners, by contrast, not only tolerate fantasy play but actively encourage it, for adults as well as for children. We are novel readers, movie watchers and game players. We have made J. K. Rowling very wealthy.
This suggests that we imagine a complex reality in which things might be true—materially, spiritually, psychologically. Science leads us to draw a sharp line between what is real and what is unreal. At the same time, we live in an age in which we are exquisitely aware that there are many theories, both religious and scientific, to explain the world, and many ways to be human.
. . . Fiction helps us to learn what we find emotionally true in the face of irreconcilable contradictions. That is what Joshua Landy, a professor of French literature, argues in ‘How to Do Things with Fictions’: fiction teaches us how to think about what we take to be true. In the cacophony of an information-soaked age, we need it.” (Read more here.)
I find this to be a fascinating and thought-provoking observation, especially in light of the many complaints we hear these days that children no longer have enough free time and space for pretend play. The implication is that if we adults just left kids to their own devices, imaginative play would bloom. But Lurhmann is saying something very different: Our kids only engage in this kind of play because we adults encourage it and even show them how.
I wonder. I do love it when my two young children engage in pretend play, and I’ve even equipped them with drawers full of cast-off costumes and a makeshift stage on which to perform. But I’ve got to say that they take their pretend play in directions I never imagined, let alone directed. Maybe it’s analogous to written language: We teach kids how to read and write—we show them how to open that door—but then they go through it and travel to places we’ve never been.
What do you think?