of a make-believe world
Derrick Z. Jackson
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
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."
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