Pretend Play Makes Us Social

“You build the train-station. We’ll build the train. Who wants to be the conductor?”

All the children begin dragging chairs across the yard and setting-up station stops. One child becomes the conductor, another becomes a worker who needs to go home, and another becomes a traveller who is visiting a friend in Chicago. This is an everyday scenario in the play yard at Garden Gate. The game may or may not continue into the following day; but undeniably, another game of role-play will occur. “Free-play”, as we call it, takes place once the children are settled and most of their “playing-out” is over, that is, clearing their systems of noise created by exposure to the media or too much adult conversation. It takes place in an intentionally quiet and simple environment, usually outdoors.

As an anthropologist, I view the work of creating an environment where children’s imaginations can flourish as equal to the task of building a virtuous society. I see the link between the individual and society as the most important function of human imagination. I have no doubt that every child has an individual imaginary-world, but every child can also use these innate capacities to explore the distinction between themselves and society. Imagination is a child’s opportunity to join in to an “already constituted system of conventions and institutions.” I fear that education as construed in our society is so focused on applying individual imaginations to competing with others, that we will ultimately shred our social fabric, if it’s not already a fait accompli.

Children, beginning at two can separate the signifier from the signified – the person from the role – in pretend play. One anthropologist notes the importance of play that manipulates the order of things and time: “in order to pretend that a stone is an apple that one can eat, both the concept of stone and of apple need to be separated from the here and now.” The capacity to separate time from representation allows children to create social roles and groupings. As imagination develops children are able to elaborate these separations of person from role in ever-complex ways. It allows children of 4 and 5 to begin games that both imitate society and affect it. When role-play enables young children to become “husbands” and “wives” simply because the priest said, “I hereby declare you man and wife”, children can re-create marriage. They can re-create the world.

Most importantly for this anthropologist, learning social roles is the child’s connection to a shared imagination – social roles do not exist if they are not understood by all. Being the “conductor” or the “traveller” or the “mother” or “postman” or “fireman” or “hunter” or “soldier” has no meaning if it is not shared by others. Pretend play allows our children to connect their imaginations to society – they enter into the social world through role-playing. Roles are independent of actual individuals. This capacity to separate the individual from the role is uniquely human but can be poorly developed if not nurtured.

When a child constructs an imaginary social world with other children, s/he is entering a space where the rules are different, where the role becomes paramount and when the game is over, the child will discard the role. Developmental psychology confirms that this capacity is hardwired in us, beginning around six months old. And this is why, when we tell our children “it’s pretend” or “not true” or “not real”, they do not understand; for they already unconsciously understand. Countless times I have witnessed parents of young children “reassure” their child that fairy’s and elves or any other imaginary aid is “only pretend”, to the disorientation or apparent relief of the child. This pretense about reality is ultimately confusing, for as the young child will grow away from their need to pretend play, s/he will develop new ways of seeing the world.

“Pretend” was not a lie; it was one way of seeing reality. If taught correctly, the child will learn that there are multiple ways of seeing the world and that an individual assumes a lot of power in privileging one perspective over another. Young children are built to generate their own realities and systems of rules in order to explore the world. Older children will exploit different capacities to view the world; capacities such as analytic, narrative, numeric, aesthetic, poetic, mnemonic. Parents should feel certain that these abilities will emerge when the child is ready. We as parents, but also as a society, need to nurture the space and time for them to do this.

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*This piece was inspired by the work of Maurice Bloch, social anthropologist working in Madagascar since the 1960s. He examined the role of imagination in the contexts of religion, science, and society. His work draws on developmental psychology, history, and ethnography in Madagascar. Imagination, for Bloch, is “a basic element of the process between perception and cognition,” an ability to “create images in the brain separate from perceived stimulus.” And he argues “only humans can imagine a separation between a state of affairs and its full existence in the past or future.”

Maurice Bloch. June 2016. “Imagination from the Outside and from the Inside,” Current Anthropology, Vol. 57, Supplement 13.

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