My daughter is going through what my family would jokingly call “that awkward stage.” (Because the fact is, every stage of life is awkward in one way or another. I personally feel like I was born in an awkward stage and have subsequently lived my entire life in one or another sort of awkwardness.) This particular awkwardness, in any case, has to do with that gray space in between childhood and adolescence. As a fifth-grader, she finds that most of her classmates would prefer to spend recess playing sports rather than engaging in elaborate make-believe play. She hates this. For her, it is infinitely more fun to create vast, fantastic worlds to explore rather than kicking a soccer ball around.
Now, to be clear, I have nothing against kids playing sports. Clearly, many have great fun doing it. What I do find repellent is the notion that continuing to play make believe past the age of, say, six or seven, is babyish. That many children who would secretly prefer to spend a little more time in their fantasy world feel compelled to leave it behind for fear of being ridiculed or not growing up as fast as everyone else.
I would like to utterly eradicate this notion. Make-believe is not babyish, or childish. Make believe is not the realm of children. We think of it that way because a child’s make believe takes a particular form that we’ve come to associate with make believe at large. But every healthy adult engages in make believe as well. It’s just usually in a more passive, subtle form than childen’s play. Consider this. Every time you watch a movie or TV show, you are allowing yourself to enter a fictitious world and believe, for just an hour or two, in at least some part of your mind, that it’s real. If you don’t, then the story is meaningless, the main character’s plight unimportant. Even more so when you read a book, which requires significant work on the part of your imagination to visualize what’s being represented by the words. Not really into fiction? You still need to make believe to be an empathetic human. How can you care about someone other than yourself if you aren’t capable of imagining yourself in their place, even in the slightest regard? Or how do you come up with solutions to problems if you aren’t willing to visualize an alternate version of reality? How can you understand metaphor if you’ve never learned to think beyond the literal – to look at a cardboard box and see instead a car, a spaceship, a trap for monsters?
Learning to play make believe is in fact a crucial developmental skill. I am acutely aware of this because my autistic son has had very little make believe play in his childhood. He used to pick up objects and say “Eo?” as if they were telephones, and it was adorable, but that faded away rather than expanding into the sort of creative, unique play that I’ve seen with his younger sister and brother. Now he sees almost everything as a potential spinning object, nothing more. That could mean he has a brilliant engineering mind; who knows? He funnels all his creative thought into one channel and he excels at it. I’m sure his mind has vast stores of creative thought, but something has kept him from expressing and developing them. The symbolist structures of language, the specific rituals of social interactions, the ability to express his inner life – all those things are impeded, and they are all connected in one way or another with a healthy imagination.
Make believe is not childish. It is not an embarrassing phase of life to be discarded and forgotten as quick as possible. It is the wellspring of a hundred vibrant abilities and skills. It is not delusion, the inability to distinguish fiction from reality. On the contrary, visiting dream worlds gives us the resources to confront the challenges of the real world. As G. K. Chesterson said: “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” Of course your imagination can evolve and mature and take new shapes as you transition from childhood to adulthood, but whatever new forms it takes, don’t be ashamed of what it was. And don’t be swayed by the voices that tell you to let it go. To be practical, to be realistic. It’s not the either/or they think it is. There is nothing about dreaming that prevents you from being practical. It will probably even help you manage the practicalities of life.
You are never, ever too old for make believe.