Please Explain: Games of Make Believe

Friday, March 28, 2008

We look into how children play games of make believe, and whether kids’ imaginations have changed along with trends in technology and education. Dr. Susan Linn is Associate Director of the Media Center of the Judge Baker Children's Center, Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and the author of most recently The Case For Make-Believe: Saving Play in Our Commercialized World. Dr. Elizabeth Goodenough teaches at the University of Michigan Residence College and is the author of most recently Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War.

Weigh in: What games of make believe do your children play? Are they different from what you remember playing when you were a kid?


Dr. Elizabeth Goodenough and Dr. Susan Linn

Comments [13]

NeedPerspective from Franklin, Wyoming

As a child, my brothers and I frequently played imaginary games in and around our neighborhood and backyard. As all of us are boys, these games were frequently war-oriented. Once, in my early adolescence, we came up with a medieval, real-time fighting game. We actually used decent-quality toy swords, sheilds, and bows to replicate war. It was simple: one hit, your dead, respawn at a certain point after certain amount of time.

Kids are very smart with their imaginations. I find that, when the slightly older kids, not quite teens, do this is is incredibly effective. They use their superior intelligence and their developed imaginations to create masterful entertainment.

Jun. 28 2008 01:03 AM
thatgirlinnewyork from manhattan

and thanks, Nancy, for reminding us of Gilda's fab "Judy Miller" character, and her "Judy Miller Show". Will confess to doing plenty of singing into a hairbrush while jumping on the bed when let to myself to play in a house full of boys.

Mar. 28 2008 02:20 PM
thatgirlinnewyork from manhattan

The p.s. of my comment is that the experience with that nephew (and with other children) convinced me that video games, computers, and television allow ANY child to "tune out" what's around him, drawing them into a space that excludes others, and deadens their impetus to do much else. Don't most of us feel sedated by television (okay, save for highly violent viewing)?

My friends who were raised without much television tend to be among the most creative and engaged people I know.

Mar. 28 2008 02:16 PM
thatgirlinnewyork from manhattan

I don't know if this is of interest or comfort to RJ, but I had a nephew who was autistic, and his parents kept him away from television as he could watch it, or listen to music for hours. Most of what we'd learned was that electronic means of entertainment encourage the autistic to remain inwardly-focused, which is the provenance of the autistic world. It's far more challenging for them to interact with others, and to remain in that space of exchange--it's unpredictable, and the unpredictable is often upsetting to the autistic. By the way, years later, my nephew is an engaged, and engaging boy, the lucky recipient of an aggressive therapy that demanded his constant participation in very simple, but interactive play with the therapists.

Mar. 28 2008 02:11 PM
Rick Boyce from Chestnut Ridge, NY

Many of the ideas expressed in the discussion resonate with me. We have just gone to great lengths as a family, to get our two children to a Walforf School - look it up.

We have a 4 year old son, a 9 month old daughter and no TV.

So many toys, with all the bells and whistles, seem to say... "No imagination required"! We avoid them.

We must make space for our children's dreams, waking and sleeping.


Rick Boyce

Mar. 28 2008 02:10 PM
Nancy Young from NJ

Gilda Radner did one of the most inspired skits of all time on Saturday Night Live. Dressed as a Brownie Girl Scout, she spent time in her room, alone,. but within minutes was leaping and jumping with the fabulous energetic creativity only a child could have, and only adults could wish to revisit...

Mar. 28 2008 01:56 PM
kel from new york, ny

When I was a little boy I played quite a lot in the make believe world without realising it was make believe because to me some of it was very real. From cowboys and robbers, to playing with my sisters dollhouse, (I was the only boy,) and playing school with the neighborhood...Today, my two year old is a joy to watch as he only watches TV for the alphabet videos while he plays hard with the fire truck and stethoscope...actually, it's my headphones he pretends to be a stehoscope while pretending to be his own doctor inspecting his baby sister's chest and back. He understands that he can use these instruments and check for a reading on a 'fake' monitor and tell us "Daddy, she's healthy!" This week he's going through his 'I'm a monster" phase where he growls and crawls like his sister and sneaks up on my wife or I. I think generally, anywhere can be an opportunity for a child to imagine as long as the caretaker in charge puts the time in with them.

Mar. 28 2008 01:49 PM
RJ from Connecticut

I was very struck by what one of the listeners said about how commercialization and the strive to be lucrative is impacting childrens' abilities to imagine and play. I'm wondering if either of the listeners have anything to say about how this might impact autistic children; my little brother is autistic and he's been exposed to electronic media since a very early age, and now when we make more of an effort to bring him outside or to read or do other non-electronic or character-based activities, he has no interest whatsoever. I'm not sure if this is something that we will ever make much progress helping him with.

Mar. 28 2008 01:47 PM
Susan Brand from Maplewood, NJ

I remember playing with my friends outside/on our bikes from morning to night, just coming home for meals and snacks.
These days I have to actively protect my children from "the Media" and commercialism.
My kids now aren't as free to roam. But our local schools have "TV turnoff year" and we participate.
The boys build cardboard spaceships and pretend to be space explorers. They make up complex scenarios with blocks/legos, stuffed animals and things they make themselves.
I have to actively let their schedules be open for play. There are so many easy ways to over-schedule your child these days!
They get piano lessons and one more thing then that's it.
Kids! Go out and play!
PS: We don't own any video games!

Mar. 28 2008 01:42 PM
Alan from NY

I write TV for kids, and my own are frequently my in-house focus group. On the subject of play, it seems some are born better suited to it than others. We lived in a building where the elevator opened into our apartment. One night I came home and found my 2-year-old daughter sitting on the floor looking up at me as the door parted. I'm not sure why it popped into my head to do this, but I started flapping my arms. "I'm an eagle!" I said. Her fingertips went to her mouth as she cowered. "I'm a bunny," she said, shivering. I rounded the corner and found my 4-year-old son. I flapped. "I'm an eagle," I told him. He looked at me. "Daddy, why?" he asked. Eight years later, my son is still our math and science expert, who wants the facts about everything. My bunny, who says she wants to be a writer too, is keeping a notebook of her stories.

When I work with other writers on TV shows, pitching ideas, we find we never do anything useful until everything vile and idiotic and disgusting has been said and everyone has shed their pretentions and straight jackets. That's our "play." Usually, the most inappropriate ideas are the most creaative, and they serve a purpose to unlock our imaginations. It seems to me that "play" makes the unknown feel safe, and we can't be successful human beings until we gain comfort in facing the unknown.

Mar. 28 2008 01:41 PM
Jean Lawless from Allentown, NJ

We played in a wooded area with a 19th century cemetery. There was a fallen tree that we used as a bench and a hollowed out stump up to a child's chest that we used as a judge's stand. We went to the cemetery, picked a name off of a headstone, held a murder trial and afterwards chased the convicted murderer through the woods. This was in the early 1960's, there was a group of kids ages 5-10 years of age.
I didn't have much time to observe my child's make-believe with other children but she did set up a "store" in her room with pricetags on her toys and a cash register. This was in the late 1980's.

Mar. 28 2008 01:39 PM
Debbie from Woodmere

As a child of the 60's I recall playing with friends using the kitchen chairs, sofa pillows, bed blankets, etc. using our imagination to make castles and caves. Also we played OUTSIDE - Hello-Hello-Hello Sir (with a pinky ball inside one of mom's stocking), jump rope - using all kinds of rhyming games in alphabetical order - which of course taught us to repeat our letters and make up rhymes. Freeze-tag, hopscotch, Red Rover, tuaght us all to get along - otherwise you'd have no one to play with!!! Kids today do not play outside, nor use their own imagination - with computer games, videos, etc. Preschool, kindergarten and elementary school is too organized.

Mar. 28 2008 01:36 PM
Lisa from Connecticut

There were 8 kids in my family, and no TV. As a working artist now, I find that when I have a commissioned work, I try to pull out my best tricks and do something wonderful for my customers; however in my non-commissioned artworks, I get to play. Those are my best pieces. I find my imagination playing out what's going on in the piece, and the finished work always has more movement and playfulness than my commissioned work.

My son is a very playful person, and as a teen now, a prolific musician/composer. He tells me what the stories are in his music (not lyrics).

I think play has a LOT to do with art.

Mar. 28 2008 01:35 PM

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