tufts universitytufts magazine issue homepage
contact us back issues related links
features think tankMortals Scholar At LargeKids These DaysNegotiating Lifeplanet tufts newswire the big day departments

kids these days

Pure Imagination

Make-believe can build strong minds

When I was nineteen, my three-year-old sister, Amy, introduced me to her imaginary companion—a tiny being who lived mostly on the palm of her hand. Being in college at the time, I never got to know Amy’s companion well, but I had no doubt that this capacity for make-believe predicted good things for her future. (She grew up to start an ice cream parlor, and now manages a successful business.) Psychologists have come to recognize fantasy and imagination in early childhood as a precursor to rational thought and, later, as an essential part of thriving in school and in life generally.

Take reading and writing. Jerome Bruner and other psychologists have pointed out that these important tasks require one to understand language that refers to contexts other than one's own. Where does this understanding first show itself? In make-believe and in listening to stories read or told by adults.

When my son was nine, he spent a year listening to me read The Lord of the Rings. Like many children exposed to the Tolkien trilogy, he was consumed for a long time by all things Middle Earth. Then, just after his twelfth birthday, he emerged from his bedroom and handed me a substantial manuscript titled “Men of the West”—a Lord of the Rings sequel that he had spent six months writing in secret. True to Bruner’s rule, the dramatic make-believe world created by reading aloud had had a profound influence on my son: it had made him a writer.

And there’s another link between make-believe and education. Harvard’s Paul Harris has pointed out that when children arrive at elementary school, they are exposed to much that they cannot directly see and experience—historical figures such as Joan of Arc, microscopic entities such as germs and viruses, and so on. To be ready to understand this kind of information, a child must arrive in school with the capacity to imagine—a capacity that is developed through make-believe play and imaginative children's literature.

What about Santa Claus and other make-believe rituals into which parents draw their children? Perfectly healthy, according to researchers such as Cindy Dell Clark, at Penn State, who find that such “imaginal experience” supports personal growth. Studies suggest that children who participate in Santa Claus rituals often have warm memories of family life and favorable images of their parents.

This certainly is the case with my neighbors’ sons who, after more than a decade, still laugh when they recall the year their parents used a stop-action video camera to record Christmas presents magically appearing, one by one, under the tree. Rather than being mistrustful or resentful, they cherish the care and ingenuity their parents displayed in their efforts to extend the Santa fantasy.

That imaginary friend my sister had was probably a good influence, too. According to research by Marjorie Taylor, at the university of Oregon, and her colleagues, children with imaginary companions are often less shy, more focused, and better at seeing things from another’s perspective. It’s becoming clear that there’s no such thing as too much make-believe. The Russian children’s writer Korney Chukovsky was probably on to something when he declared, “The present belongs to the sober, the cautious, the routine-prone, but the future belongs to those who do not rein in their imagination.”

W. GEORGE SCARLETT is deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and a contributor to the book Proactive Parenting: Guiding Your Child From Two to Six, written by the department’s faculty.

  © 2011 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155