Just when we need a bit more proof that we don’t need to schedule our child’s every waking minute—or that daydreaming is not a sign of boredom, here comes this study from researchers Dr. Evan Kidd and his colleagues at the University of Manchester. The team compared children aged between four and six years, with and without imaginary friends. The conclusion: children who engage in imaginary play or have imaginary friends are much more likely to develop empathy and sustain attention.
Through intuitive and creative role playing, young children and their imaginary friends are learning to resolve conflicts and solve problems. This study is welcome relief for the many mothers of one who worry that their “only child” will suffer from all sorts of emotional deficits.
The ability to roam around in one’s mind and find it a friendly place serves us well in later life. When we turn every thing off, we need to be able to be good company for ourselves. Children can learn this life skill young if they are given some precious time to be alone.
So, if your child has cautioned you to “be careful,” do it. Don’t step on Alice. Even when Alice is nowhere to be seen, tread lightly. Otherwise, you tread on their dreams. As we set a place for Elijah at the table on Passover, your child may set one for Henry or Henrietta. Let them. You never know what part of themselves they are inviting to supper.
Photo credit: Maciej Chojnacki
From Peter Gray, a developmental psychologist at Boston College, comes an interesting insight into the value of play for children and teens. He talks about play in the context of hunter-gatherer societies:
“Play and humor were not just means of adding fun to their lives,” according to Gray. “They were means of maintaining the band’s existence – means of promoting actively the egalitarian attitude, intense sharing, and relative peacefulness for which hunter-gatherers are justly famous and upon which they depended for survival.”
This theory has implications for human development in today’s world, said Gray, who explains that social play counteracts tendencies toward greed and arrogance, and promotes concern for the feelings and well-being of others. “It may not be too much of a stretch,” says Gray, “to suggest that the selfish actions that led to the recent economic collapse are, in part, symptoms of a society that has forgotten how to play.”
The idea of free play being central to social connection is worth reflecting on. We watch our children like hawks—rarely is their play loose or free. We schedule their activities, sign them up for teams, set up playdates, when, maybe, what they really need is time spent at the playground in the company of peers.
Read more about Gray’s paper here.
Photo credit: phalinn
Today’s girls, our daughters, are falling down the ladder of self-awareness in their play. Now we are calling ourselves names. Younger and younger girls, nursery-school age girls, are playing with dolls called Bratz and styling themselves as these dolls who resemble hookers.
Why are mothers buying these? I fear we have lost the ability to see ourselves embedded in our culture. We have to help our girls remain inside their bodies, looking out. Not already the objects of a predatory sexual gaze.
I am a fan of the Groovy Girl dolls. Colorful, cheerful, not frightened or frozen in strange postures–these dolls reflect how it might FEEL to be a girl. A bit of this, a bit of that, and quite quite fun.
The expensive dolls out there, the American Girl dolls, are a strangely popular invention. The historical versions were the first of these dolls and they come with real samplers and canopy beds. Costly, yes, but Molly or Kit can provoke wonderful journeys in imagination.
But there now exists the popular American Girl Tea and Hair Salon. At the Natick Mall in Massachusetts, girls and mothers line up with friends for birthday parties. The popular dolls are the ‘look like me” dolls. Choose your hair, eye, skin color and voila—the AG store produces a doll who is you. Or, you are her? Hard to tell.
You can take your doll everywhere—you can wear her clothes. She now has her own restaurant where you take her to tea. (She cannot eat so perhaps you won’t either). After tea, you have your hair styled like your doll…or vice versa.
The arm of consumerism reaches too directly into identity. We are encouraging girls to pretend something particular. The message is clear. You are a doll. We are dolls. Perhaps not Barbies. Maybe not Bratz. After all we can choose our hair color, eye color and clothes. Until we sit sadly on a shelf, abandoned for the newer model. The age for plastic surgery gets younger and younger, and the rate of cosmetic surgeries increases. We do not serve our daughters well. We need to talk with them and think out loud about our ages, professions and the choices we make. We need to live mindfully with them aware that they are children and we are adults.