Books and Imaginary Play

“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.



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4 responses to “Books and Imaginary Play

  1. I can only go by what I see, but there is a certain scism in how kids breakdown play. My girls and their friends recently had a play date (another item I won’t go into here) where they played “American Idol” in the bedroom. They each took turns being their favorite Idol and judging, but ultimately it was about singing to each other.

    Afterward they went out to a small pocket park behind our house that has a group of trees, shrubs and a winter-melt pond and observed a sleeping (or dead?) bat in a tree and mucked around looking for interesting insects. The playground equipment didn’t interest them at all.

    When I first saw Not A Box I was also immediately struck with the notion “who would need an instruction manual for their child” on how to have imaginative play? My best guess is based on the second subset of kids I see who, by third grade, are sucked into bedrooms and basements playing video games and online fantasy role playing. I think there is a parental fear that if they do not show kids the way they will end up unable to figure out how to play on their own.

    So it really does come down to the parents. My kids own no video games, rarely watch TV, and don’t need encouragement to read books in their spare time. We hold a weekly game night (Clue and Yahtzee are the current faves) and other than that they’re more than happy to go out and run around when the weather’s nice. They might have enjoyed the books you mention but they certainly didn’t need them.


  2. Very interesting post!
    I’ve often wondered if each generation values different traits in children. Creativity is one of the traits that is sometimes looked down upon, especially when it comes in the form of imaginary friends.
    Personally, I feel that parents now value creativity more than past generations.
    I studied Child Development at BYU and we discussed the importance of creative play often. This is perhaps one of the reasons I don’t send my son to preschool. I believe preschoolers should have a lot of free time to develop their imagination and passions. Some preschools may base curriculum on these things, but most are trying to prepare children for their academic futures.
    My son has such a wild imagination (including an imaginary friend) that my husband worries sometimes. Parents worry that their children need more understanding of reality and that play is just silly and unimportnat. It’s the age-old question behind Peter Pan. When should a child grow up and stop pretending?
    I think the best way to raise an imaginative kid is to simply not stop them from imagining. They have natural tendencies toward creativity. TV, video games, and overscheduled lives hinder creativity. So do parents who don’t value it, parents who always tell children exactly how to do things.
    To encourage creativity, simply have things available…books, craft items, toys…and let them run wild.
    I’m a firm believer in making a house baby-proof and letting kids explore. Sometimes they make messes. Oh well. They’re little scientists.
    Maybe I just went off on a tangent. Over here we love Not a Box. I love when a fun story is told in very few words. These books are my passion. It would, of course, be a shame to only have this kind of book, though. I love having many different types of books available all over the house.


  3. David and Emily,

    Thanks for your observations on this. I have to admit I’m far less worried about television, computer, and all than some. My parents didn’t get us television till I was nine or so and even then we were strictly limited. Yet so much of my creative play came from television.

    I do admit I’m sad that kids seem to give up dolls (e.g. stuffed animals, action figures, etc) earlier now, but hopefully they are using their imaginations in some other way.

    I’m an optimistic sort — think it comes with the territory of being a classroom teacher.


  4. I also agree that kids still know how to play –I see imagination-based play at home and also at work every day.

    The other day after I read “Roxaboxen” to a class of 1st graders, one student said, to enthusaistic agreement, “Hey, we could do that at recess!” And I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.


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