Make-believe makes a big difference. Children’s pretend play equips them for real life, write Julie A. Fiorelli and Sandra W. Russ in their 2012 article for the American Journal of Play. Fantasy play is essential to children’s health and welfare, affirms Vivian Gussin Paley in another Journal issue. Traveling through time and space, assuming imaginary identities, transforming real objects into dramatic props, and developing rules to govern these activities is not just a frivolous pastime. And kids will do it whether adults endorse it or not—just look at the furniture in your own living room. Did you know that sofa was a safe haven amidst the molten lava?
Whether the couch cushions represent stepping stones among volcanic hazards, a gangplank high above the choppy sea, or a pilot’s seat aboard a plane, children improvise with the materials at hand. The transformation is extraordinary: kids employ physical and social engineering to renovate familiar spaces, develop their laws, and negotiate with each other to enforce them. They even adapt to changing circumstances—say, when baby brother crawls through the lava and the game becomes Loch Ness Monster.
Adults’ inhibitions may prevent them from embracing free play, but when they let down their guard (occasionally with the assistance of—ahem—beverages), the “kids at heart” emerge. They invent card games with continuously changing rules. They impose challenges whose difficulty level relates inversely to the players’ diminishing motor skills. In an episode of the television sitcom “New Girl,” the 20-somethings play True American, a complex, boisterous game which involves besting each other at presidential trivia, leaping across furniture to avoid lava, and depleting pawns (beer cans) to attack the king (also in liquid form) in his castle. Sure, this adult version of the games children play exaggerates the typical experience, but look no further than Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) games for a real-life pretend-play phenomenon. True American and LARPing highlight some of the same motifs that mark children’s free play: suspending disbelief when real objects substitute for imaginary ones, evolving to accommodate change, and investing passionately in an invented world.
If unstructured play is the domain of happy, healthy children, as Fiorelli, Russ, and Paley suggest, how do we encourage and protect it? We can start by sharing play memories with the kids in our lives—and looking the other way when our living rooms host the occasional geological phenomenon. Much like molten lava, free play is beautiful and completely beyond our control.