The power of a make-believe world

 

Derrick Z. Jackson

Boston Globe

June 3, 2008
 

IN MY preteen summers, I wielded a baseball bat on the front lawn to titanic games roaring in my mind. I was the Milwaukee Braves, slamming the fastballs of Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, and Sandy Koufax. I knew every wrist movement of Hank Aaron. An imaginary announcer said, "Marichal winds up, the 3-2 pitch . . . deep! Deep to left-center! Mays goes back, back . . . it's gone! Home run Aaron!"

In the winter, I took out the electric football game. I rarely turned it on. The electricity was in my head. My right hand carried the ball for the Green Bay Packers. My left hand was the Chicago Bears smothering my right hand for the tackle. I was also my own crowd and announcer, shouting "Touchdown Packers!" so loudly that my mother shouted down the stairs, "You all right?"

I am newly reassured that I was normal. "Play is really the foundation of what is really being human," said Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and author of the new book, "The Case for Make Believe."

"It is the foundation of creativity, school success, curiosity, learning, the way children make meaning of their lives. Creative play is like journal writing, the beginning of self reflection."

Linn has written extensively on how screen time (television, video games and computers), and heavily-marketed toys wedded to the scripts of shows crowd out free play. The American Academy of Pediatrics last year urged a movement back to free play, citing many studies that connect play to every measure of well-being, and others that suggest that lack of play contributes to high percentages of college students not being in control of their lives.

Linn says that free play is part of young people gaining control, even if it includes violence. I told her that my best friend in elementary school and I spent our lunch periods playing superheroes, complete with Kryptonite and planetary doom. She said it is different to take characters and work out a collective script with a friend than to gratuitously gun down people, often by yourself, in a video game. "Children have always played games that involve violence, in part, because it is something they're afraid of and it is an attempt to get some kind of control over it," Linn said. "When you play, you can be powerful, you can control your world and have a sense of confidence and conquer your fears."

I became a sportswriter years after my free play. My wife, Michelle, had imaginary animal friends and imitated animals as a child, answering to her mother only when she called her by the animal of the moment. She said it might have been the beginnings of loving nature, taking biology in college, and last year hiking 400 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Our neighbor Nora, today a physician, said she and her siblings played post office with stuffed animals that sent letters to one another. Today her two children run around the yard playing pirates.

My youngest son, Tano, played imaginary football games, throwing a football up in the air long enough for him to switch in his fantasy from quarterback to receiver to catch it for a touchdown. He does not yet connect that to future plans, but he was connecting across the generations of free play to Dad. Though a born New Englander, the quarterback throwing the ball was Brett Favre of my home-state Packers.

Linn wrote in her book, "In saving make believe, we are saving ourselves." What it means is an America where boys and girls are encouraged to not use the screen as a first resort of socialization. The first resort becomes themselves, scripting fantasies on porches and yards, becoming their own heroes and heroines, or just sending a letter to their teddy bear.

A bowler in my youth, I still roll imaginary strikes down my hallway at 52 to break tension. "We've reached a bizarre place where nurturing creative play is a threat to corporate profits," Linn said. "The more creative children are, the less stuff they need."