Growing a culture of imaginative play.
A few weeks ago my heart nearly stopped at the sound of a panicked stampede coming up the basement stairs, until I finally made out the words that my two little girls were shrieking: “Anne! Anne! She’s drowning!” Once I recovered from my laughing fit, and the relief that a giant spider wasn’t downstairs waiting to be dispatched, I assured small Diana and Jane Andrews that help was coming.
“Come on, let’s go see if she’s okay!” said one to the other. Exeunt merry little feet.
Yesterday, I learned how to fashion umbrellas from paper plates and Lincoln Log sticks. They were rudimentary — MacGyver would have done a better job — but they pleased the two Mary Poppinses waiting at my feet. It’s impossible to do one’s work as a flying nanny without the proper accoutrements, as you may already know.
These two sister-friends sometimes need their time apart, but their friendship flourishes as between cohorts in adventure, and rightfully so. They are fellow citizens in countless worlds.
As a family, we’ve read and listened to books together since the days when I was great with my firstborn. We’ve said goodnight to the moon, picked blueberries with Sal, and walked through Paris at half past nine so many times that even my husband and I now have an extra line of communication. When he took the girls outside to make a snowman last month, he videotaped our younger daughter padding snow onto the icy head while repeatedly saying, “Pliff, ploof,” and showed it to me with great amusement later that evening. Neither of us had to cite Mouse’s First Snow aloud to recognize the little character she was imitating. The four of us have developed a vernacular as we’ve read together, and each shared story has added to the language of connection.
Outside our home, I get a delighted thrill when I meet others who have explored my favorite story-lands. In the company of fellow travelers, I don’t need to describe the terrain or point out features worth exploring; we can share straightaway the personal connections we have to the details in the book, and why certain landmarks or characters have lodged in our memories. And every once in a while I come across a truly kindred spirit: a person with whom it’s enough to say a single name — and the magic that’s as dear to us as the details of our “real” lives comes rushing back. Avonlea. Rivendell. Orchard House. Ingleside. Mole End. The Lupine Lady. Sarah Wheaton. Susan Sowerby. Mr. Edwards. Puddleglum. Whenever this happens, I have the sense of having found “my people,” like expatriates who meet by happenstance abroad.
For now, my closest people live under the same roof, and it’s an indescribable privilege to watch two of them come into their own stories with the help of the volumes on our shelves. The books we own, to borrow the words of Anne Shirley Blythe, are friends. Trusted ones. They’ve served as kindling for conversations on difficult topics, and guided us to vistas of beauty that we’d never have glimpsed otherwise. The act of sharing stories like these has given us roots and anchors for our discussions and play.
It also gives rise to creative courage, I notice. Whenever I participate in my daughters’ play, even in the slightest of ways — “I’m Mary and she’s Laura and you’re Ma, Mommy! Bye; we’re off to school!” “Bye! Don’t forget your lunches!” — the receptive imagination blooms all the more quickly into the expressive imagination. They draw. They dance. They dream up sequels to books that ended far too soon. Small hands dish up Lincoln Log pasta and take up purse-strap reins to ride off into the sunset on Black Beauty, our faithful piano bench; nothing is safe from the honor and peril of being woven into a tale.
As their parents, we do what we can to encourage these revels, partly because we benefit from secondhand exposure to so much joy, and partly because we hope that, someday, our children will recognize just how deeply their own lives are intertwined with the great eucatastrophic Story.i Someday they will know what the imagination at its height is meant to be: “the presence of the spirit of God,”ii the faculty that sharpens our vision on the dim looking-glass of these days. The sense that enables us to constantly pierce through to and be pierced by deeper realities.
To that end, we’re making room for the imagination in our home through story. We’re pushing soft chairs together to form fishing boats, making whooshing sounds and toggling the light switch like mad so that our preschooler will remember the commanding peace of The Captain of the Storm.iii We’re relating episodes from our own childhoods over the dinner table and listening to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader during chore time. In this chapter of our lives, it’s not always easy for me to remember to treat the imagination as a priority, but it still grows well in the million tiny words scattered throughout the house — a million glimmers of honesty and wonder that pool together to help us reflect on the fullness of God.
i Eucatastrophe: “the sudden joyous ‘turn’” in fairy-story; for a more complete explanation, see J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories.”
ii George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and its Culture,” www.george-macdonald.com/etexts/the_imagination.html
iii Sally Lloyd Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible.