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Imagination as progress

amanda.simone's picture

As a child, starfish loved to enact elaborate scenes with the magic of make-believe. She and her playmates would adopt roles, embodying “feuding sorcerers” one day and “magical princesses” the next (starfish). Sometimes they were parents and kids, doctors and patients, or even non-human creatures that would travel through galaxies near and far. In her words, imaginative play was “rewarding” and all she needed was “nothing more than my own imagination to carry them out successfully” (starfish). This ideal notion of the power of children’s imagination is what most adults recall when they think about childhood, and about their current creative capabilities in comparison.

However, in reality, the scope of imaginative play is much less expansive and exceptional. Play critics such as Utah State University anthropologist David Lacey would contest this romanticized memory of imagination. In The New York Times’s feature “Taking Play Seriously,” he is quoted saying: “Despite the heartwarming rhetoric we dish out in our teacher-training classes, children do not have unlimited imagination. Their make-believe, and, by extension, other play forms, is constrained by the roles, scripts, and props of the culture they live in” (Henig). Although starfish remembers her make-believe play as simple, easy, and personal, it seems that she - and many imaginative kids like her - needed more than just that one magic ingredient “imagination” to develop her play successfully. Imagination seems independent and limitless, but kids also need fodder from which to draw inspiration.

For starfish, the make-believe games “had the same appeal as a movie or book,” in that she became invested in the characters (starfish).  Perhaps this is because some of her play characters were modeled off of those in children's novels and movies she and her friends had seen. From my experience, what kids have observed in the media, read in books, talked about at home and school, and watched on TV are the most influential in their imaginative play. When I was a child, my favorite forms of pretend play were emulations of familiar social structures such as playing store, school, and work (in which I would imitate my mother on the phone). To use Lacey’s language, I certainly took on the roles and scripts that I observed in my neighborhood, and was constrained by the fact that I could not play what I did not know and I did not know what I had not seen. The elementary school students I played with for my job in high school often astounded me with their complex utopian and dystopian society games, which I later found out were based on their favorite fantasy series, video games, and TV shows. Their play was certainly “populated by characters from Hollywood’s imagination and not their own,” as Henig describes in “Taking Play Seriously” (Henig). I was disappointed to realize that imaginative play is simply not the infinite realm of possibilities that we sometimes think it is, but starfish notes that she and her friends worked to push the boundaries of imagination nevertheless.

Although children can only draw from ideas within the limits their upbringings have placed on them, they can expand on those ideas by combining and hypothesizing from what they have observed. Starfish described this as questions that guided her play to the threshold of imagination: “Who would decide what happened next? Who could imagine the most engaging event?” (starfish). Her processing of ideas to create the most imaginative, the most engaging, the craziest and most fun scenarios illustrates play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith’s principle of“phantasmagoria” in which “children’s thoughts run wild and all the chaotic bits of the real world get tumbled together and pulled haphazardly apart in new, sometimes even scarier confabulations” (Henig). A “most engaging event” for starfish and her friends or brother was likely some strange combination of plot lines and characters; perhaps the animal protagonists of one game embarked on the astronaut's journey of another to produce the “space traveling animals” she mentions in her post (starfish). This reshaping of prior concepts is what restores merit to the limited power of imagination.

Moving beyond entertainment, starfish claims that make believe play allowed her to escape the constraints of society and learn self-determination: “There was also a sense of autonomy and independence that came from our games, they were completely separate from the world of adults and the failure or success of them was all our own” (starfish). While play scholars generally agree with starfish that imaginative play fosters development of skills that help kids mature, they would note that societal constraints are actually ever present when it comes to relations of power. Kids will never be able to fully leave the world of adults. The scenarios and roles they play are directly linked to adult society and often reinforce current power dynamics in the world around them. Many experts might even argue that the failure and success of play is due in large part to the parents and society. In this sense, starfish returns to the idealized memory of play which is “romantically conceived as being outside power relations,” according to the authors of “Interrogating teleological understandings of play in spaces of material alterity and low surveillance” (Edensor, 73). Although it may seem like make-believe has little in common with adults and how they enjoy themselves, starfish’s play likely mirrored the adult world more than she recognized.

Reflecting on her play as a child, starfish may have fallen victim to the common romanticization of play that these play scholars describe. Her portrayal of imaginative play was joyously disconnected from the grown-up world with possibilities that appeared limitless when it is arguably the opposite. Imagination is unfortunately very limited to the framework of the society in which children grow up. Fortunately, however, kids like starfish have the ability to mix and match ideas, find new intersections and bring nuances to light by taking the norms of existing traditional society and culture and reconfiguring them as agents of change. The independence she gained from engaging with this type of play allowed her and continues to allow her to challenge societal expectations and power dynamics, make connections between seemingly different issues, and bring novel perspectives to common problems. As Edensor and his colleagues state, the limits of make-believe do not manifest in “simply learning or copying adult roles, but playing with them, negotiating and transforming their relations to dominant power structures in the process; play is always potentially transformative or subversive of power” (Edensor, 77).

Thus, if we want to facilitate children’s ability to use imaginative play as an agent of progress, there is only one thing we can do as unimaginative, less-creative adults. We must provide children with the material they need to devise change. If the magic ingredient is broadly termed “imagination”, then it is composed of whatever books we make available to kids, what perspectives we allow them to see, what values we model for them, and what we expose them to. We should strive to give children access to the world so they can in turn imagine us a better one.


Works Cited

Edensor, Tim, Bethan Evans, Julian Holloway, Steve Millington and Jon Binnie. "Playing in Industrial Ruins: Interrogating Teleological Understandings of Play in Spaces of Material Alterity and Low Surveillance." Urban Wildscapes. Ed. Anna Jorgensen and Richard Keenan. New York: Routledge, 2011. 65-79.

Henig, Robin M. “Taking Play Seriously.” The New York Times 17 Feb. 2008: MM38. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.

starfish. “Play.” Web post. Changing Our Story 2016. Serendip Studio, 18 Sept. 2016. Web. 23. Sept. 2016. /oneworld/changing-our-story-2016/play