Looking back, I feel ashamed. What type of monster am I that I felt so much enjoyment and excitement out of such violence? They were innocent poor peasant farmers who had done nothing wrong. But, at the time, I didn’t care.
I was a dragon, and I brought the fury.
Everyone knows that imagination-based play is a crucial element of childhood. It improves our children’s language development and their ability to process the outside world. Children can experiment with various approaches to problem-solving through play, and it’s a crucial element of growth and development.
Because of this, there are a lot of good articles out there right now about how to foster imagination-based play for kids, but not as many about how to increase parents’ interest in it.
Imaginary play is also a nice way to escape your troubles. I felt relaxed when I was pretending to be a dragon with my children. I no longer felt the weight of a million worries about bills, my job, or taxes on my mind. My only job was to destroy a village with my fiery dragon breath.
As an adult, it’s easy to play pretend but rarely does a parent actually believe that the carpet is flowing lava as you jump across couch cushions. Now we just walk through the motions of play rather than re-experience childhood wonder created by play.
Years of pretending to be an adult have drastically reduced my ability to pretend like a child.
But once you are in the land of make-believe, it is impossible to forget — the feeling is intoxicating. I’m not sure how it happened (possibly we binged on too many episodes of “Game of Thrones”), but one day I was playing with my four-year-old son when a switch flipped.
No longer was I play pretending that the plastic see-saw was my dragon body. No. Instead, I was flying over the countryside gently flapping my strong leathery wings. I could smell the mountain air and could see the villagers running in fear as I descended upon them. I could feel the fire as it left my elongated throat. (I was a jerk dragon, and loved it!)
I’m not sure how long it lasted, but I was there — totally engrossed in play. It was the closest I can remember to reaching a “moment of Zen.” I was wholly inside of my mind without a thought about the real world.
Then all of a sudden, as quickly and surprisingly as it started, my imagination bubble popped. I don’t know what caused me to snap out of it, but it was like being woken out of a dream.
For a brief moment, I had reentered my children’s sacred imaginary play space. I resurfaced disoriented, confused, and also a little amazed. I had completely forgotten how awesome imagination is, and the fun it unlocked. For the rest of the day, I was energized, and I completely understood why kids don’t want to stop playing to take a bath or go to bed—play time is a ton of fun!
Since then, like an addict trying to get one more high, I’ve been trying to get back to that liberating place. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to unlock my imaginary world again. However, I have identified a few key things that help me get closer to my kids’ imaginary worlds.
1| Make play active.
If I’m just playing with action figures, I’ll have fun, but I’m not fully invested. If, on the other hand, we are having a pretend sword fight in the backyard, with running, jumping, and wild swings, it’s easier to believe I’m actually the evil pirate my son is battling on our warship.
2 | Familiarize yourself with the characters your children love and become during imaginary play.
If they want to play dinosaurs — cool, I’m basically a T-Rex expert. If they want to play as one of their new-fangled cartoon characters, I need a two-minute explanation of what I look like and what weapons I have at my disposal. Requiring an explanation or description only frustrates my kids, so I either watch more cartoons with them or gently suggest that I’m going to be the Leonardo Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (a character I already know and love) instead.
3 | Give it 100% no matter what.
Having experienced the euphoria that my kids are feeling during pretend play time, I’m going to do my best to make sure they have fun with it. When my daughter wants to pretend I’m a pony, I know that she believes we’re galloping in a field of flowers when in reality, we’re moving slowly on aching knees in the kitchen. When my son needs me to save him from slipping down the slide, I know that in his mind, he is Sylvester Stallone in “Cliffhanger,” and I am his last hope.
This imagination play stage is temporary, and we only have a short window of time to coexist in that world with our kids. At some point, my kids won’t need me to sit with the dolls at their tea party or look for trolls under every bridge. But until then, I’ll do my best to make sure it’s as much fun as possible. Because who knows? Maybe our next imaginary game reignites my creativity, and I can dive back into their world again.
Although, for the villagers’ sake, hopefully, I’m not a dragon.