As I worked on the previous post and began to envision a series of articles on imagination, the July-August issue of the Smithsonian Magazine arrived with a piece that fit the theme. In “Why Play is Serious,” Alison Gopnik, a leading researcher in cognitive development, says play is “a crucial part of what makes all humans so smart.”
Many of us intuitively know that play matters, but Gopnik and her colleagues at UC Berkeley have new theories and research on why it’s so important. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Let-the-Children-Play-Its-Good-for-Them.html
How is it that very young children learn so much so quickly? Gopnik’s research focuses on pretending, which she calls “counterfactual” thinking. She gives the example of Einstein wondering what would happen on a train traveling at the speed of light.
Gopnik found that “Children who were better at pretending could reason better about counterfactuals – they were better at thinking about different possibilities. And thinking about possibilities plays a crucial role in the latest understanding about how children learn.”
Ms Gopnik is concerned about policymakers who “try to make preschools more like schools.” In hard times, “frivolous” programs are always the first to go – disciplines like the arts, music and humanities – the very ones that stretch imagination and encourage us to envision new possibilities.
By the time we are adults, we’ve learned how to sideline play in order to get down to business. Even – or perhaps especially – in the creative realm, it’s no simple matter to let go of goal-oriented behavior when competition in the marketplace is so stiff. Working for concrete or pre-defined results is the antithesis of the kind of free experimentation that opens up new vistas.
Some sort of strategy is usually needed for us to approach the unselfconscious freedom of children at play, but it doesn’t need to be anything dramatic. At the end of his life, Joseph Campbell said an hour a day in a quiet room with a favorite book or a journal is enough for us to step into sacred space where the real hero’s journey always takes place.
Simple but never easy. In a recent post on his own blog, Michael Meade quoted these marvelous lines penned by E.E. Cummings:
“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day,
to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any
human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
The fact that the battle is hard is all the more reason why we cannot afford to forget how to play.