We feel proud of our young children when they build a large Lego structure from a kit or play out an imaginary scene with Barbie dolls in our family rooms.
In fact, these activities barely exercise children’s imaginations. Practically every instance of young children using their imaginations today occurs under the close gaze of adults at school or at home, using adult-created toys which leave less and less up to the imagination as time goes on.
Until the last few decades, children were permitted to wander regularly to physical places that were completely free of adult oversight. In these places, they often created imaginary worlds from scratch. For instance, when I was a kid, friends and I went to the woods down the street every day to build, then later hang out in, a tree house. We had a club there with its own particular rules and leadership structure.
My favorite example of an imaginary world created entirely by children is in a children’s book called Roxaboxen. The book tells the true story of a neighborhood in Yuma, Arizona about 100 years ago. The children there laid out a town using rocks, boxes, and broken bottle pieces. Down the main street there were houses, stores, and a city hall. Marian, the girl who wrote the original story about Roxaboxen that the children’s book is based on, was mayor. Other kids ran the stores which sold imaginary ice cream and baked goods. Kids drove imaginary cars outside of town, and the speeders went to jail, which was guarded by the sheriff, another kid. Elsewhere, boys and girls had battles, charging each other’s bases using spears made with ocotillo, a desert plant.
Anyone who reads this short, wonderful book with its vivid illustrations would feel the urge, as I always do, to jump inside its pages and be a part of Roxaboxen. I want to add my own house at the end of the main street. Could I make mine bigger than the others? How could I make mine stand out and be the coolest looking one? Maybe I could paint my rocks different colors.
I’d like to add my own store to the row of stores. What should I sell? Maybe I could sell materials to build cars or to defend against ocotillo attacks. Right now, everyone finds these things on their own, but if I specialize and spend a lot of time on one of these things, I can come up with much better ideas.
As you can see, the possibilities are endless. With a Lego kit or Barbies, the possibilities are, well, quite limited.
This summer, I’m going to try to get my kids and other neighborhood kids to start building a Roxaboxen-like town in the creek bed three blocks away from my house. The oldest of these kids will be barely 7, so they’ll need some help to build something as intricate as Roxaboxen. So, I’ll give them a good start, but my intention is to get them to a point where they’ll take charge of most things on their own. Then, in future summers, they can go there totally on their own to build and manage their own imaginary world.
We’ll see how this goes. I’m excited!
Do you have any ideas for where your kids can create and manage an imaginary society completely on their own? You don’t need a lot of space. As a child in a slum in Pittsburgh, my dad and his friends built an elaborate clubhouse in the alley behind his house.