Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Young Pretender

       Child's play is a kind of creation of a make-believe but half-real world. As such, it has its primal source in the impulse to act out and embody in sensible form some interesting idea; in which respect, as we shall see by-and-by, it has a close kinship to what we call art. The image, say of the wood, of the chivalrous highwayman, or what not, holds the child's brain, and everything has to accommodate itself to the mastering force.
       Now since play is the acting out of some interesting and exciting fancy, it comes at once into collision with the child's actual surroundings. Here, however, he finds his opportunity. The floor of the room is magically transformed into a prairie, a sea, or other locality, the hidden space under the table becomes a robber's cave, a chair serves as horse, ship, or other vehicle, to suit the exigencies of the particular play. 
       The passion for play is essentially active; it is the wild longing to act a part; it is thus in a way dramatic. The child-adventurer as he impersonates Robinson Crusoe or other hero becomes another being. And in stepping, so to say, out of his everyday self he has to step out of his every-day world. Hence the transformation of his surroundings by what has been called the "alchemy of imagination". Even a sick child confined to his bed will, as Mr. Stevenson tells us in his pretty child's song, "The Land of Counterpane," make these transformations of his surroundings:

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets,
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

       The impulse to act a part, which is the very life-breath of play, meets us in a crude form very early. Even an infant will, if there is a cup at hand, seem to go through something like a pretense of drinking. A little boy of about eighteen months who was digging in the garden began suddenly to play at having a bath. He got into the big bucket he was using for digging, took a handful of earth and dribbled it over him, saying, " 'Ponge, 'ponge," and then stepped out and asked for " Tow'l, tow'l ", Another boy less than two would spend a whole wet afternoon enjoying his make-believe "painting" of the furniture with the dry end of a bit of rope.
       There is no need to suppose that in this simple kind of imitative make-believe children know that they are acting a part. It is surely to misunderstand the essence of play to speak of it as a kind of conscious performance, like that of the stage-actor. A child is I one creature when he is truly at play, another when he is bent on astonishing or amusing you. When absorbed in play the last thing he is thinking of is a spectator. As we know, the intrusion of a grown-up is very apt to mar children's play, by calling them back to the dull world of every-day.
       This impulse to get away from his common and tiresome self into a new part will often carry a child rather far. Not only does he want to be a prince, or a fairy, he will even make an attempt to become an animal. He will greatly enjoy going on all fours and making dreadful noises if only he has a play-companion to be frightened; and possibly he does get some way towards feeling like the bloodthirsty lion whom he fancies himself.
       It is worth noting that such passing out of one's ordinary self and assuming a foreign existence is confined to the child-player. A cat or a dog will be quite ready to go through a kind of make-believe game, yet even in its play the cat remains the cat, and the dog the dog.
       Such play-like transmutation of the self is sometimes carried over longer periods. A child will play at being something for a whole day. For example, a boy of three and a half years would one day lead the life of a coal-heaver, another day that of a soldier, and so forth, and was rather particular in expecting his mother to remember which of his favorite characters he was adopting on this or that day.
       In a good deal of this play-action there is scarcely any adjustment of scene : the child of vigorous fancy plays out his part with imaginary surroundings. Children in their second year will act out a scene purely by means of pantomimic movements. Thus one little fellow not quite two years old would, when taken out in his perambulator, amuse himself by putting out his hand and pretending to catch "little micies" (mice), which make-believe little rodents he proceeded to cuddle and to stroke, winding up his play by throwing them away, or handing them over to his mother. In like manner he would pretend to feed chickens, taking imaginary food with one hand out of the other, and scattering it with an accompaniment of "Chuck! chuck! chuck!"
       This tendency of the little player to conjure up new surroundings, and to bring to his side desirable companions, is, I suspect, common among lonely children. One little fellow of four passed much of his time in journeyings to Edinburgh, "London town," China and so forth in quest of his two little boys who roved about with their "mamsey," a "Mrs. Cock". They paid him visits when he was alone, always contriving to depart "just two tiny minutes" before any one came in. (1) Mr. Canton's little heroine took to nursing an invisible " iccle gaal " (little girl), of whose presence she seemed perfectly assured. (2)
       If only the young imagination is strong enough there may be more of sweet illusion, of a warm grasp of living reality in this solitary play, where fictitious companions, perfectly obedient to the little player's will, take the place of less controllable ones. Yet this kind of play, which derives no support from the surroundings, makes heavy demands on the imagination, and would not, one suspects, satisfy most children.
       The character of the little player's actual surroundings is, for the most part, a matter of small concern to him. If only he has a dark corner and a piece of furniture or two he can build his play-scene.
       What he does want is some semblance of a living companion. Whatever his play he needs somebody, if only as listener to his make-believe; and when his imagination cannot rise to an invisible auditor, he will talk to such unpromising things as a sponge in the bath, a fire-shovel, or a clothes-prop in the garden. In more active sorts of play, where something has to be done, he will commonly want a living companion.
       In this making of play-companions we see again the transforming power of a child's fancy. Mr. Ruskin speaks somewhere of "the perfection of child-like imagination, the power of making everything out of nothing". This delightful secret of childhood is illustrated in its fondness for toys and its way of behaving towards them. 
       Later on, I think, children are apt to grow more sophisticated, to pay more attention to their surroundings, and to require more realistic accessories for their play actions. This, at least Dr. Stanley Hall tells us, is true of doll-plays.

(1) From a paper by Mrs. Robert Jardine.
(2) The Invisible Playmate, p. 33 ff.

Watch how imagination is better in real life from Action Movie Kid.

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