In Play, How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown describes a scene we’re all familiar with:
It’s a second or third birthday, and the big present comes out. The excited birthday boy or girl tears into the wrapping to uncover the box, then opens the box to find the perfect gift that the parent has worked so hard to find. … Imagine the family chagrin, then, when their little darling is more interested in playing with the box than the toy.
I have not only watched my own children do this but remember doing it myself! What is the fascination with the low-tech, nondescript, simple box?! Brown explains while also giving us hope:
Parents should be happy about such a turn of events. It shows that their child has developed a healthy play drive, one that comes from their own fantasies and desires. The box is a blank slate, something they can transform through imagination into anything they want.
Which not only makes great sense, but also makes me feel much better! I and my children don’t lack the ability to recognize quality; we have a healthy play drive!
This idea of play coming from your own imagination rather than the imagination of others is a powerful one. I remember my favorite toys were the ones that let me define my imaginative experience rather than dictating it to me. Legos are a perfect example. Sure you get a set of instructions on how to build a particular boat or car or castle, but that’s only the beginning! There’s no end to the creations you can make from one set of building blocks. Legos were one of my favorite toys and continue to be one of my most successful gifts to my children.
I’m reminded of a fascinating scene from one of my favorite children’s stories, Momo, by Michael Ende (his better known book was The Never Ending Story). Momo is a young girl who, through her keen ability to listen is single-handedly thwarting the evil Time Thieves who have most of the rest of humanity under their spell. At one point, the Time Thieves try to seduce Momo by giving her the Real Life Doll, a toy so real that you don’t need to use any imagination to play with it. She looks just like a little girl, she walks and talks, and she has an unending supply of clothes you can dress her in.
Momo is curious about the Real Life Doll, but runs into problems with it when she has exhausted the preprogrammed phrases, can’t get it to walk anywhere but straight, and isn’t able to dress her the way her imagination leads her. The doll is very good at what it was built for, but gives no room for anything else. And Momo is used to being able to imagine everything else. Her toys are simple, nondescript lumps that, in Momo’s imagination, become anything and everything she could ever want.
Momo’s “healthy play drive” which is driven by her “own fantasies and desires” not only gives her everything she wants, but also saves the day. The Time Thieves don’t have any way to subvert this powerful young girl and flee (for more details, you’ll just have to read the book).
Out of fantasy land and back into psychology land, Stuart Brown assures us that Momo had it right. From Play:
Authentic play comes from deep down inside us. It’s not formed or motivated solely by others. Real play interacts with and involves the outside world, but it fundamentally expresses the needs and desires of the player. It emerges from the imaginative force within.
And, to be clear, this isn’t just about having a good time or goofing off. No, play is serious business and is the path to what most of us want to become. Brown continues:
That’s part of the adaptive power of play: with a pinch of pleasure, it integrates our deep physiological, emotional, and cognitive capacities. And quite without knowing it, we grow. We harmonize the influences within us. Where we may have felt pulled in one direction by the heart and another direction by the head, play can allow us to find a balanced course or a third way.
So, next time you find yourself doodling in the margin, or arranging the papers on your desk in strange and beautiful geometric patterns, don’t apologize! Glory in the innovative growth that you’re experiencing. Relish the moment!