Some years ago, I was shocked by young men in a diversion from incarceration program, who demonstrated no ability to imagine life beyond the narrative of their prevailing gang culture. Asked to draw self-portraits, each of these young men drew either a grave or hands holding onto bars. “I’ll be dead before I’m 21,” said one. The chaotic environment of family, plus violent coaching from older uncles, brothers, neighbors, led to their inability to concentrate in school, with its predictable spiraling down into the grim violence of street life -- or worse, falling prey to cult violence.
The fact is that living happily and successfully requires a rich fantasy life, the ability to imagine alternative realities, and the capacity to soothe ourselves using internal resources when life is filled with stress and conflict. In other words, fantasy is the key to dealing effectively with reality.
Nourishing the imagination, teaching a child about life in the way that child thinks rather than as an adult thinks, creates the foundation for learning, acting effectively, imagining how another person feels, and developing the self-esteem gained by believing in their capacity to handle whatever life brings.
According to a paradigm established by developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, every stage of childhood has its own tasks, and each stage is critical to integrated psychological, physical, and capacity development. The age of play could be described, however, as a quantum leap out of infancy into childhood. By the age of three, our personality, with its gifts and needs, is beginning to take shape as we learn to master not just our own bodies, but the world around us.
"Are my gifts valued and worth supporting, or should I hide them away?"
This is the great dramatic question a child must answer, once he or she knows they’re capable of taking care of themselves and are preparing to step forth out of the cocoon of family into the next threshold of life: school.
Can you remember how much courage it took to enter that first day of pre-kindergarten? No, probably not directly. But you may experience that same fear of the unknown, and of your own capacities to deal with it when you try to undertake something new in your adult life: going to a social event for the first time as a widow or widower, getting back into the dating game after a divorce, applying for jobs after losing your previous one, going to networking meetings, giving public presentations, pitching a book to an agent. The root of our confidence or lack of it very likely can be found in this early stage of life.
The work of a child is play.
Play is a child’s vocabulary, a child’s way of figuring out the world, what goes up, what falls down, what is safe, what is not, what is edible, what hurts. Almost from an infant’s first days, he or she plays. The mobile hanging over the crib, the fuzzy stuffed animals at the foot of the crib, the rubber ball in the mouth, the buttons on mother’s blouse, grabbing, suckling, jingling keys and laughing joyously at the sound they have the power to make.
The work of a parent as a child learns to play is to create a new kind of holding environment that differs substantially from the ones of earlier life phases. Not the physical holding of infancy, or even the steadying and protective hovering as a toddler begins to walk. This is the holding environment that allows a child to play, to be their own hero. This critical time is also when a child gets to experience the quality of empathy: the ability to imagine their self into the life of another. According to Erikson, about the age of three to five we get really serious about our play. During this period we experience a desire to copy the adults around us and take initiative in creating play situations. Note: I’m talking about non-competitive, unstructured play. Not soccer games, ballet lessons, or formal play dates that put pressure on a child to perform well rather than explore with glee.
In this pre-school stage, when we are preparing to step into the world of kindergarten, we play out roles in a trial universe, experimenting with the blueprint for what we believe it means to be an older child and even an adult. We are like the emerging butterfly, beginning to pump blood into our wings.
We make up stories with dolls, stuffed animals, toy phones and miniature cars, playing out roles in a trial universe, experimenting with the blueprint for what we believe it means to be an adult. We try out our abilities to dance, draw, make up stories, explore our fantasy life, test it against the reality of our family. We present plays. We also begin to use those critical words for exploring the world—What if?
As we play, we are developing the ability to plan in preparation for rudimentary goal achievement. We’re learning, through play, how to master our world.
Play evolves naturally into a sense of purpose.
Unfortunately, this is where all too many children are stuck and their creativity stunted -- when so many people become frozen, their burgeoning individual voice silenced, and their inner life is starved to near death. As we know all too well, if emerging life force is blocked in one direction, it will flow into another.
The last event of the day in the family of a friend of mine is "Story Time." This is when he tells his kids a story -- sometimes a story of his day, sometimes a fantasy tale -- and lets them share whatever story they want to tell to him. How lucky his children are to have a dad who nurtures their narrative intelligence!
Bruno Bettleheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, wrote that fairy tale is most resonant with very young children. At the age of three to five, we’re ready to learn about life’s realities, but in a way that matches our vocabulary and the way we as children think. For instance, a child will ask to be told the same fairy tale over and over because it solves some inner puzzle that the child can’t articulate. When that problem is resolved, they become ready to hear and absorb a new story.
What’s Your "Age of Play" Story?
- Did anyone tell you fairy tales when you were a child?
- What do you remember about that person, that time of day or night?
- How does that make you feel right now?
- What fairy tales or movies stand out in your childhood If you can't remember, imagine? What did you like about them?
- What dramas did you like to act out as a very young child? A tea party? A pilot? (I was a ballerina, president, pilot (never a flight attendant mind you, but always at the controls of a jet, not a big lumbering passenger plane. Interesting that I fear flying as a grownup!)How do you play now? Do you see patterns in what you did then and now? Did those playful games become a root of passion or were they shut down before they evolved into real gifts and purpose?
- Finally, who supports your gifts? What situations say "Yes! Your gifts are valued!" Which do not?
Free-write your response to any or all of these questions. Or write yourself into a fairy tale that you like. What do you take away from this exercise? Don't judge or edit. Instead, share with a trusted friend. Fill the unmet needs of your inner three-year-old.
In reality, we will always be faced with obstacles and individuals who cannot see our gifts or who don't want them. Being conscious of what's going on inside and making intelligent choices for ourselves is what is asked of us. And more than ever before, becoming a healthy, happy adult requires the ability to imagine new solutions, to step out into uncertain terrain, and to trust that we have an innate power to navigate an ever-changing reality.
|The shortest distance between two sentient beings is a laugh.|
All Rights Reserved. Juliet Bruce, Ph.D. from my book in progress, A Write of Passage.
This is the third question of life. Over the years, I have posted articles on the foundational narratives that shape our lives. The first, "Am I Safe," is the subject of a May 2011 blog post. The second, "Can I make my needs known and do I know how to get them met?" is found in September 2011: "Finding Your Tribe." These questions replay throughout life, as we confront its challenges. When we are stuck in adulthood, chances are we are dealing with an unresolved question from childhood.