Before the sun rises most mornings, I can hear a little voice down the hallway. In my just awoken state, it almost sounds like a room full of people, laughing, talking, dreaming, and exisiting in an alternate reality. A reality that does not involve the boring day-to-day morning tasks associated with adulthood, like feeding the pets, packing lunch bags, showering and mentally motivating for the day ahead.
In this room, a little girl is in a world all of her own. With a flashlight and a stuffed animal, a bunch of markers and a notebook, she is a princess in a castle. She is making friends, negotiating situations, and solving problems. She's in charge. She is the leader of her own world, an imaginary world that exists nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
Without a word, she follows me around the house as I get ready. She carries a basket or a bag loaded with paper, crayons, stuffed animals and stickers. I watch from the corner of my eye as she draws a large, one-eyed rainbow creature with 3 arms. She places a sticker of a ballerina beside it. She has created new friends. In moments they are on an adventure together, on a pirate ship and someone has stolen their gold. She tells them she needs help. She creates a small blue, two headed creature with green eyes and sticks three soccer player stickers in the corner of the paper. "Now, we have a team and we can make it to Princess Land and fight the zombies!" she cries with excitement. She lives in two worlds. She is here, right next to me, but my world fades to gray as her newly imagined world comes to life and all before 6 in the morning.
There are so many wonderful things children do to enhance our lives. I've greatly enjoyed visiting the memory of my childhood as I shape, and witness, theirs. I lived in a small town, had one sibling ( who was often more intereted in tormenting, rather than playing with, me) and so I spent a lot of time being the only kid surrounded by adults. I wasn't lonely, however, because I had gymnastics competitions to win, syncronized swimming performances to give, and a pink pony with a banana saddle to ride up and down the street. I traveled to lands near and far wearing sequined dresses, carrying my baby doll Guiseppe and my tea set. Every place we went, every time of day, was an opportunity for adventure. Guiseppe and I would whiper to one another while sitting on the kneeler during mass. Our stairs were the perfect multi-level house for my paper dolls. My markers faded after I designed house after house. The movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids debuted when I was a kid. Who needed a ray gun when all I had to do was close my eyes and I'd be inside my newly designed pink and red 2 story with a bunk bed and whirlpool tub? I spent hours, to my mom's chagrin, roller skaing around the dining room table. The number of times to circulate being dicatated by the country I landed on when spinning a globe on the table. China- oh yes, 6 times around the table!
We didn't watch TV then. We were bored. We all know that boredom sparks creativity but today's children are creative, too. Yes, it can be hard to be creative when you wake up to a schedule of TV, crafts, camps, clubs, assorted enriching activities and playdates. Yet, creativity can't be tampered down if it is inside of you. It will fight to come out. We allow the kids to watch TV on the weekends. Charlotte comes to the couch armed with toys and treasures. The TV fades to the background and she creates her own world as ours takes places beside hers. In the car, she makes songs from what we say or lessons she wants to share. Her room looks like a tornado hit. I used to organize it weekly until I realized that me putting the dolls in the purple bin and the stuffed animals in the pink bin meant that the dolls, who were suppossed to protecting the dream house, couldn't do their job and that stuffed tiger was protecting the stuffed kangaroo who is now an orphan in her orphanage and yes, everything has a place. Everything has a very, very specific place, that only Charlotte understands. Imagination doesn't happen when it is neatly organized in a color coordinated bin, tucked into a closed closet.
Charlotte's mind is moving at the speed of light from the time she wakes up until her eyes rest and she falls into slumber each evening. (Even then, she talks in her sleep so I'm certain her adventures while asleep are just as colorful as when she is awake.) Her ability to create worlds is an overt demonstation of her learning and of her working out how she fits in our complicated, structured, and highly social world. Also, as a child who is always being told what to do (comb your hair, brush your teeth, close your mouth when you chew) her play done her way. She is the ruler of her imagination. She decides what will be done, and when and how. She's created control and comfort for herself, and if you choose to, or if you are lucky enough to be asked to enter that world, she is in control of you. "Mommy, you are the orphan kangaroo's momma and your name is Sillidiferous and, no, no wait, you are her sister and your name is Bella. Yes, that's who you are! Hurry up, Bella! We need to get to the white forest and find the magic potion!"
Yes, you read this, and you laugh, because you fondly recall your own adventures imagining a world around you. Or, my description of my child sounds like your own son or daughter. All kids learn through imaginative play. Maybe you read this and you know that this is not true. Not everyone learns to negotiate their place in the world in this way. Many of us are lucky to have theory of mind. "Theory of mind is one's ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own." (Wikipedia, I know, but remember this isn't an academic paper and I just pulled the definition from the nearest webpage because I'm doing double duty right now and am acting as the kangaroo orphan's mother and she is keeping warm in the waistband of my pants.)
I relish Charlotte's love of play because not all children learn in this way. Not all children will naturally advance to this developmental stage. Some children are not able to practice their understanding of social norms by creating imaginary worlds where they can work out problems and negotiate situations. Not all children have rooms brimming with toys that are temporarily resting before being loved, and enjoyed, and part of someone's growing up.
As a child with an active imagination, this was hard for me to understand. Actually, it was painful for me to discover that not all kids were able to enter the perfect imaginative places I enjoyed as a child. To me, this seems lonely and scary. How does one learn about the world around her if not by creating her own world in which she can practice?
For these children, an adult must be their guide but that requires effort and finding that place in our brains that has long been forgotten. Them in comes Charlotte, the play coach. For those who might not nauturally be drawn toys and play, she'll show up in your room with a suitcase. She unzips it and out rolls an abundance of costumes, dolls, a jump rope, crayons and paper. Before you know it, you're dressed as a mermaid, you have stickers on your arms that you've been told are your orphan children and your room is a daycare. You'd better hurry up and hide before the evil mermaid witch comes. At first you may not know what happened to you but, after a few play sessions, you've learned a little about life and relationships. You may be more comfortable with others becuase you've figured it out with your play coach. And yes, you've made a very good, very genuine friend who is always going to look out for you in your imaginative world and in real life, too.