Child Development

Brilliant Kids Visit (And Create) Imaginary Worlds

Most kids play creatively, but only the elite construct bold new realities.

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The Great Glass Town consisted of several offshoot kingdoms, all ruled by the Bronte sisters. Created by Emily and Anne Bronte, the town had carefully drawn borders, a well-documented military presence, and several periodicals. Branwell and Charlotte, the creators of the world of Angria, could hear about The Great Glass Town, but they could not govern it. The two pairs of girls repaired to their respective imagined landscapes and then, after they grew up, wrote their way to fame and fortune with blockbusters like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

“Psychologists have recognized the Bronte’s intense and long-lasting make-believe play as a ‘learning laboratory’ that revealed and prepared for an early genius,” Michelle Root-Bernstein of Michigan State University wrote in The Creation of Imaginary Worlds. For the Bronte sisters, Root-Bernstein explains, imagination and world-building wasn’t just a pastime. It was an oeuvre into creative writing, a telltale sign of latent genius, a way of flexing storytelling muscles that weren’t necessarily available to most girls growing up in nineteenth-century England.

Studies suggest that modern children stretch their imaginations in similar ways. While most kids play make-believe, researchers suspect that only about 10 percent delve into complex world-building activities (known as “worldplay” in the scientific literature). Many of these children, bolstered by their active imaginations, go on to contribute greatly to both the arts and sciences. C.S. Lewis and Jack Kerouac toddled in imaginary worlds. So did the neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, the physicist Stanislaw Lem, and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Taken together, studies suggest there’s something special about kids who let their imaginations run wild.

What Counts As “Worldplay”

Not all imaginations are created equal. Most kids play in imaginary worlds, but only a select few engage in “worldplay.” Root-Bernstein defines worldplay as “the repeated evocation of a fully realized imaginary place often (but not always) inhabited by imaginary beings engaged in imagined behaviors or characterized by imagined systems within some imaginary culture.”

In other words, the difference between worldplay and make-believe is largely a matter of scale. Make-believe vanishes at the end of the day; worldplay can last months or years. Make-believe is giving your dolls a voice and a backstory; worldplay is giving each one passport, a language, and a set of convictions. If children are engaging in worldplay a parent can expect to see maps, drawings, histories, and other amusing artifacts emerging from what otherwise appears to be make-believe. In the short-term, these worlds and artifacts are adorable and, in some cases, a bit scary. In the long-term, they mold the personalities of the children who invented them.

The Bronte sisters left behind such a trove of artifacts from The Great Glass Town and its surrounding kingdoms that some literary scholars have dedicated their careers to cataloging each map and drawing. Thomas Malkin made extensive documentation of his imaginary world, Allestone, before passing away at age 7. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart reportedly spent his childhood ensconced within the invented cultures and customs of exotic lands he invented.

When Worldplay Begins and When It Ends

Researchers have cataloged five stages of worldplay. The first involves playing with toys — animating them and assigning them personalities — and usually begins around age 2. Children destined for worldplay will soon begin to project their stories onto familiar places within their local communities, which marks stage two. When the child then steps out of the local community and draws inspiration from places that do not exist — far off islands or alien countries — he or she has entered stage three and is probably between 3 and 6 years old. Stage four includes creating documents and languages for the pretend world. Stage five is when the world takes on a life of its own. These final two stages tend to peak around age 9, and then fade in the teen years.

Why children of any age bother engaging in detailed, time-consuming worldplay is unclear. In The House of Make-Believe, one of the most thorough attempts to study children’s imaginations, the authors write that worldplay provides children with alternatives to social interaction and distraction from boring routines. Of course, it’s also fun and empowering. Worldplay “serves affective purposes by generating a sense of joy, personal control, and power,” they write.

However fun, worldplay dies hard. By adolescence “the pretend play that characterizes early childhood begins to disappear, to be replaced in large measure by rule-bound games,” Root-Bernstein writes. Researchers aren’t sure why this happens either. One theory is that children at this age begin to hone their skills of rational inquiry, and challenge inconsistencies within their imaginary worlds. Another theory is that this is when most children begin to worry about relationships with their peers, and shift from imaginary play to real-world social interactions. Perhaps they continue to imagine, but in the form of silent daydreams rather than overt fantasies. For whatever reason, most teenagers have long since left worldplay behind.

The Long-Term Effects

But teenagers continue to reap the rewards of a childhood well spent in imaginary lands. In 2006, Root-Bernstein compared MacArthur Fellows to Michigan State University undergraduates and found that the Fellows were about twice as likely as the average college student to have engaged in worldplay as small children. The Fellows told researchers that this finding confirmed their own suspicions about their early influences. “A majority of Fellows with assessed worldplay in childhood reported connected between early paracosm play and mature endeavor,” Root-Bernstein writes in the study.

And worldplay doesn’t just produce authors and artists. The 2006 study found that MacArthur fellows focusing on the sciences were just as likely to have engaged in worldplay as those working in the arts. “Given prior expectations that such play ought to prepare preferentially for creative achievement in the arts, the strong presence of childhood worldplay among Fellows in the social science and sciences is particularly striking,” Root-Bernstein writes. That might be because worldplay predicts above-average levels of creativity, she suggests. Creative people tend to succeed in their fields of choice — whether that’s art, science, or something else.

This theory goes a long way toward explaining why C.S. Lewis, Oliver Sacks, and Friedrich Nietzsche all excelled in their chosen fields. The research suggests early worldplay may be linked to creativity in general, rather than natural ability in one or two specific creative disciplines.

Why Is Worldplay Linked To Genius And Success?

One of the simplest advantages of worldplay is that it gives children more time to flex their creative muscles. Make-believe play usually ends in early childhood; worldplay often extends until adolescence, which means there’s still intense exploration — and brain development — going on long after the pretend play of early childhood fades. Later worldplay also means that a more mature brain gets to take a crack at engaging with the pretend. A five-year-old may be incapable of drafting complex maps or inventing languages during playtime and, by the time he or she is capable of doing so, will often have moved onto more tangible pursuits. Meanwhile, a 10-year-old engaged in worldplay brings a mature mind to make-believe — an experience that most children miss out on.

Worldplay also invites children to stretch their imaginative capacities. Developing relatable characters demands empathy; sticking to a dynamic storyline requires the child to generate and maintain an ongoing history for a pretend land; imagined yet consistent worlds require problem-solving ability. Together, this fosters “a balanced blend of imaginative and analytic skills,” Root-Bernstein writes. Just the sort of skills you’d expect to find in, say, a MacArthur Fellow.

How Parents Can Foster Worldplay

You can’t force worldplay any more than you can force genius onto your children, but there are a handful of concrete ways parents can inspire their kids to imagine bigger and better.

Amber Ankowski, an adjunct professor of child psychology at UCLA, writes that reading books, telling stories, playing “dress up”, and playing “what if” games can get a child’s creative juices flowing. She also suggests taking your kids to interesting places, such as museums, gardens, waterfronts, and treetops. This will give your kids a wide selection of true experiences to draw upon for potential worldplay. At the very least, it should inspire and expand their imaginations.

Most important, Ankowski suggests, is scheduling free time for your kids to play with open-ended materials (blocks, paper, markers, clay) so that their imaginations can run wild. “Kids need their imaginations most when there is absolutely nothing else to do,” Ankowski writes. “So give your busy little bees frequent breaks from their all-too-easily overloaded schedules. Let them play independently, with no structured activities or high-tech toys and screens to distract them.”

“You’ll be amazed at what your kids dream up.”

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