“Do children still know how to play?” asked Joanna Ridge Long in last Sunday’s New York Times. In her review of two picture books, Not a Box and The Birthday Box, each of which provides a creative-playing-with-a-box model for young children, Joanna hits on something that has been bothering me too for some time— that such books reflect a grown-up concern, “… that creative play is becoming a thing of the past. Some merely portray imaginative activities, as if children might not think to invent them.”
This seems somehow related to the following idea being planned for a new playground in New York City:
In an unusual public-private partnership, the city is developing a playground near the South Street Seaport that will have trained ”play workers” on hand to help children interact with features of the new playground: water, ramps, sand and specially designed objects meant to spur the imagination.
“New York Tries to Think Outside the Sandbox,” New York Times, January 10, 2007
I’m one adult who is confident that children are still able to initiate creative play straight from their very own imaginations, perhaps, but not necessarily stimulated by a story, any story, without any adult input whatsoever. Joanna reminds us of the creative play of the children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, back in a time when stories out of books most likely generated imaginative play. In my childhood it was often television shows. My fourth grade friends and I cared for our imaginary horses every recess after seeing The Wonderful World of Disney’s “Horse Masters.” (And, believe me, no teacher or parent did anything other than let us be.) When I began teaching it was “Star Wars” the children played — running about with their X-wing fighters (with me simply observing and giving them space to play). Today it is more likely widely imaginary drawings (often comics), computer games (I hear much discussion of these, many of which tap at their imaginations in new ways), or television — say an erzatz “American Idol” competition. From what I can see and what I hear, children still know how to do it — they don’t need our help.
The two books Joanna reviewed reminded me of a favorite book of mine when very young, Beatrice Schenk de Regniers’ A Little House of Your Own. What I loved so much about this book was that it validated my love of creating imaginary homes. I adored doing this be it a squirrel nest of pine needles under some trees in the backyard (perhaps inspired by an animal fantasy like The Wind in the Willows) or a camp for my runaway stuffed animals (most likely coming from my favorite kids-on-their-own-book, The Boxcar Children) or some doll accouterments (definitely coming from Rumer Godden’s Miss Happiness and Miss Flower as I still have them).
Other than providing me with materials and time, my parents let me be. (In fact, my poor father built us a playhouse in the backyard which we rarely used, much preferring to create our own places further back under the trees.) I think we adults can still let children be. And give them books with great stories that spur their imagination as the ones above did mine.
I just hope adults buy Not a Box and The Birthday Box to reinforce existing imaginary play, not because they feel the books are needed to initiate it.