The Importance of Playing Make-Believe

One of my favourite sounds in the world is children playing. Although our children are well past that age, we have stayed in a neighbourhood where new families move in all the time. One of the things that has always amazed me is a child’s ability to make believe. I used to do this but I don’t any more. At least, I don’t do it the same way I used to.

Just take a minute to think about the term itself: make-believe. The very words connote the creation of an imaginary world that you and your playmates can share, even in that brief and fleeting moment. Out of the ether, you can create an ephemeral reality where you can play God. A few adults can still do that. George R.R. Martin pulled it off. J.K. Rowling did likewise. But for most of us, our days of make-believe are well behind us.

I worry about the state of play. I am concerned that rather than making believe themselves, children today are playing in the manufactured and highly commercialized imaginations of profit-hungry corporations. There is no making — there is only consuming. And that could have some serious consequences.

Although we don’t use imagination the way we once did, it is the foundation for the most importance cognitive tasks we do. It was Albert Einstein who said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

It is imagination that connects the dots, explores the “what-ifs” and peeks beyond the bounds of the known. It is what separates us from machines.

In that, Einstein presciently nailed the importance of imagination. Only here does the mysterious alchemy of the human mind somehow magically weave fully formed worlds out of nothingness and snippets of reality. We may not play princess anymore, but our ability to imagine underpins everything of substance that we think about.

The importance of playing make-believe is more than just cognition. Imagination is also essential to our ability to empathize. We need it to put ourselves in place of others. Our “theory of mind” is just another instance of the many facets of imagination.

This thing we take for granted has been linked to a massive range of essential cognitive developments. In addition to the above examples, pretending gives children a safe place to begin to define their own place in society. It helps them explore interpersonal relationships. It creates the framework for them to assimilate information from the world into their own representation of reality.

We are not the only animals that play when we’re young. It’s true for many mammals, and scientists have discovered it’s also essential in species as diverse as crocodiles, turtles, octopuses and even wasps.

For other species, though, it seems play is mainly intended to help come to terms with surviving in the physical world.  We’re alone in our need for elaborate play involving imagination and cognitive games.

With typical human hubris, we adults have been on a century-long mission to structure the act of play. In doing so, we have been imposing our own rules, frameworks and expectations on something we should be keeping as is. Much of the value of play comes from its very lack of structure. Playing isn’t as effective when it’s done under adult supervision. Kids have to be kids.

Play definitely loses much of its value when it becomes passive consumption of content imagined and presented by others through digital entertainment channels. Childhood is meant to give us a blank canvas to colour with our imagination.

As we grow, the real world encroaches on this canvas.  But the delivery of child-targeted content through technology is also shrinking the boundaries of our own imagination.

Still, despite corporate interests that run counter to playing in its purest sense, I suspect that children may be more resilient than I fear. After all, I can still hear the children playing next door. And their imaginations still awe and inspire me.

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