After I sold The Princess Curse, one of my aunts said something like: “I knew you were going places. You had such an imagination. I never met another little kid who would spend hours holding a conversation with an imaginary person through a banana-telephone.”
Now, I happen to have quite a few imaginative, creative friends who all probably practiced some very single-minded acts of make-believe play like that as children. Friends who are writers–I can totally imagine Stephanie Burgis doing something even more cute and imaginative as a child; but friends who aren’t writers, too. My best friend from college is a math professor (and also named Stephanie, but I swear, this entry is not solely about Stephanies… but it could be), but from all reports, an hour of banana-phone conversation would’ve been a slow day for her.
Additionally–full confession!–I played a lot of role-playing games in college (I like to think of them as exercises in cooperative story-telling), and that’s the venue where I met a lot of my close friends (including my husband). (Shoot, I once LARPed with Elizabeth Bear before she was Elizabeth Bear.) I’m just guessing here, but I think the folks that you sit around with playing out imaginary court intrigue and sword fights are most probably the evolved form (in Pokemon terms of evolution) of the childhood make-believers.
“Play is a child’s work.” We know this. And my aunt recognized the link between the creative mind I had at 3 and the creative mind I have now. But is there more to it? Is playing pretend actually good training for life?
This NY Times article has a lot to say on the subject, particularly as relates to a program called “Tools of the Mind”: Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?
“Play is seen by most teachers and education scholars as a break from hard work or a reward for positive behaviors, not a place to work on cognitive skills. But in Tools of the Mind classrooms, that distinction disappears: work looks a lot like play, and play is treated more like work. When I asked Duckworth about this, she said it went to the heart of what was new and potentially important about the program. â€œWe often think about play as relaxing and doing what you want to do,â€ she explained. â€œMaybe itâ€™s an American thing: We work really hard, and then we go on vacation and have fun. But in fact, very few truly pleasurable moments come from complete hedonism. What Tools does â€” and maybe what we all need to do â€” is to blur the line a bit between what is work and what is play. Just because something is effortful and difficult and involves some amount of constraint doesnâ€™t mean it canâ€™t be fun.â€
I find this very interesting, especially in light of my life-long ambition of becoming a working writer. When I wrote solely for fun, with no real goal or aim, I rarely finished anything. When I wrote solely with the intention of being published, I rarely finished anything either!
It was only when I took the disciplines of goal-setting and combined it with the choice to write things I considered fun rather than serious, that I started to publish short stories regularly, or produced The Princess Curse.
I am fascinated by the potential “life-skills” aspect of playing pretend, not just for what it does for kids, but what it might say about those of us who grow up and play pretend on a regular basis. I wonder: isn’t the creation of story the ultimate act of make-believe?
What do you think?