Do Kids Engage In Inventive Play Only Because We Want Them To?

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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?

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5 Responses to “Do Kids Engage In Inventive Play Only Because We Want Them To?”

  1. Edith Young says:

    I can tell you that I am the sixth child of Mexican immigrants, and I grew up in the drug war zone of Brownsville, Texas. My parents, who both have an elementary education, did not provide me with costumes or any type of props to play. My natural inclination was, in fact, to discover and play. I tore the plant flowers from my bougainvillea plant and turned them into tea by squeezing the flowers and adding water. I took the towels from my mother’s clothesline and added them to my head to make them look like nun head gear after watching nuns be hailed in Mexican telenovelas. I can say the exact same thing about all 5 of my brothers and sisters who are all college graduates. Four of the six of us hold graduate degrees. I recently wrote an article on what I call an organic play. Here is the link: http://bit.ly/16N3YfM

  2. Ridiculous! All children, given the freedom, delve into fantasy and pretend play. Children whose play is directed tend to be over anxious, aggressive, and dependent. Fantasy is not a diversion of reality but a place to test the waters of self and place in society.

  3. Al says:

    My daughter at four told me she wanted to be an astronaut-doctor and operate on aliens. Then she wanted to be a painter. Now she wants to be a princess. I suspect she will be a writer—if there are still writers 20 years from now.

  4. Chris Parsons says:

    Perhaps it seems unprovoked and undirected by adults because a large amount of the stimuli for our children comes from TV, films, reading fantasy books etc. It would indeed be interesting to see if they were brought up in a culture without these things, whether such apparently creative fantasy play would take place.

  5. Conn McQuinn says:

    I think part of the impact of imaginative play and storytelling is to prepare us for change. Spencer Holst wrote a great short story about this called “The Zebra Storyteller,” which you can read online at http://www.archipelago.org/vol3-1/holst.htm . I have referenced this little fable many times.

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