Imaginary Play to the Max

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.

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7 Responses to Imaginary Play to the Max

  1. Aleksandar_Totic_FB says:

    Don’t be dissing legos 🙂 I’ve played one imaginary world for 3 years straight with my best friend. We still mention it every once in a while. Farm animals were people, and we lived on boats. It consumed us, 3+ hours a day on rainy days, for several years. The room was 20×10.

    The tools do not make the imagination, freedom + boredom do. The tough part for some kids is that they get little freedom, and many distractions keep them from boredom, and you end up with vague dissatisfaction. I am not sure if I’d have preferred the setup you described to our legos, my experiences of being the smallest boy with older ones around involve lots of fears…

  2. Tregonys says:

    Great article. Have you come across ‘evolutionary play theory ‘? I saw David Sobel talk about this last year, and Bob Hughes, an English play theorist has written about it.

    In essence all children go through all aspects of the history of human culture. Some will spend longer on some bits but it is very helpful for children’s brain development, social and emotional development if they’ve got as far as intricate money based cooperative societies!
    However the important thing is they’ve done it alone, helped and supported by each oth, not adults. So I’d reaspectfully suggest that you introduce kids to the space you have in mind, maybe hook them up with spaces they can get stuff to build with. Then leave them alone… They need to build and destroy, hunter gather, muck about and learn to trust each others games before they jump to a children’s village you describe. There are no shortcuts if you do it for them it might as well be TV or a show village. They’ll have fun maybe, but won’t be theirs.
    When I was a kid we kind of had bothbthe above – innercity Liverpool and we built dens at the end of the street, but these got destroyed when we weren’t there so yes me & my brother had very intricate village of Lego/scaletrix/railway & whatever else. 3hours plus on building and running that every w/e certainly helped develop my taste for management in later life… And my brother’s for engineering!

  3. Mike Lanza says:

    Aleks – I should be clear that my primary criticism of Legos is with current Lego kits in which the entire goal is to build one end product. Decades ago, Legos were sold as building sets which could be used to build anything. Now, the sets that are sold have many very specific parts that are useless unless directions are followed precisely to build what’s on the picture on the top of the box. These sets don’t do exercise kids’ creativity at all.

    Tregonys – my primary goal is deep engagement to the extent that the kids will want to return multiple times and build a complex world. I *really* hope they do it on their own, but at ages 4-7, I’m thinking they may benefit from strategically-placed pushes from some big brothers or sisters.

  4. Games We Played says:

    Right on!

  5. carol says:

    dude…if you ever got your kids a “modern day” lego kit you’d see that yes, the kid follows the instructions (a good skill) and builds the planned item….but shortly after the model will be brokem down down and the legos become a collection of random legos that are in fact very useful to build anything their imagination and little fingers can create.

    i do not like the marketing behind current day legos but kids still do have the creativity they always did with them

    ntw – did you ever build a model when you were young?

  6. Mike Lanza says:

    Carol – Sure, some kids will go beyond the directions, but I’m quite certain that more kids created things without directions when there weren’t any directions.

    And yes, I built models when I was young. It was ~OK, but paled in comparison to the other less structured things we did like building things with wood (e.g. a treehouse) and playing pickup sports games.