Why Creating Imaginary Worlds During Play Is Beneficial

What do Emily Bronte, Friedrich Neitzsche and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have in common apart from the fact that they were all highly distinguished in their chosen fields? One thing that ties them together is that they all engaged in building complex imaginary worlds, or paracosms,  when they were children.

Emily Bronte along with her siblings created “Glass Town” situated somewhere in Africa. Neitzsche and his sister created an imaginary world with a squirrel as the King, and Mozart created the Kingdom of Back with his sister. All of these worlds were highly complex and their creators spent many months defining and elaborating various aspects of their world. 

This kind of childhood play is significantly different from other kinds of imaginary play children typically play in. This kind of make believe play doesn’t end at bedtime but persists for much longer often stretching into months or even years. The imaginary world keeps growing organically and accumulates stories, culture, politics and even distinct languages. 

What Is Worldplay? 

Michelle Root-Bernstein, a creativity scholar, who studies imaginary worlds in children believes that worldplay has ties to creativity and giftedness. In a research study she found that the prevalence of worldplay was significantly higher among recipients of MacArthur genius awards compared to a group of undergraduate students. The MacArthur Fellows came from different disciplines in sciences and humanities, and the undergraduate group was selected to match their profile. 

Creating paracosms may seem like a frivolous activity but it builds skills that are essential for success. As Root-Bernstein explains, “childhood worldplay does appear to provide an early apprenticeship in absorption and persistence, discovery, synthesis, and modeling.” 

As children start elaborating their worlds, they not only build their imaginative skills but many others like empathy (understanding different characters’ problems), logical thinking (building rules and societal structures) or problem solving (resolving conflicts between groups). But most importantly, children also begin to realize that society and its rules were created by other people like them and are just as malleable as the rules in their imaginary worlds, giving them the confidence to imagine new solutions to human challenges. 

Despite the benefits of worldplay, it is much less prevalent now than a generation ago. With the proliferation of technology, children spend their free time exploring readily available commercial worlds in games, instead of using their imagination to invent their own. This, unfortunately, deprives them of an opportunity to develop lifelong creativity skills. 

Worldplay As A Pedagogical Tool

Inspired by the benefits of worldplay, we created a project-based learning (PBL) program for younger students to design their own fantasy worlds. We realized that the project was a fertile playground to teach different concepts and subject areas while keeping students engaged. Some of the topics we covered were myths, ecosystems and numbering systems, and in each area students had to create their own versions. Below are some examples:

  • Myths: In one session we learned that all cultures have traditional stories or myths that explain the history or some other natural phenomena. Myths arose because people didn’t have the scientific knowledge to understand the world around them. These stories became a way to make sense of the world around them and could often be a vehicle for other moral lessons. After we discussed different kinds of myths, students created myths to explain some aspect of their own world.  
  • Numbering Systems: We explored how different numbering systems evolved in human history to keep up with our growing needs. The earliest forms of counting was through tally marks which became impractical when large numbers were involved. The next “invention” was to assign symbols for larger numbers (like ‘C’ denotes 100 in Roman numerals). Similarly, place-value was another improvement that made it easier to do arithmetic operations. After students see how the decimal system we use now is the product of multiple iterations over hundreds of years, they take on the task to design their own numbering system with their own symbols (which often include emojis) and choice of base.
  • Ecosystems: We studied different kinds of interdependent relations and how these mutually beneficial relationships help the ecosystem survive. For example, crocodiles allow birds to pick food that’s stuck to their teeth – this helps the crocodiles keep their teeth clean and the birds get easy access to food. Similarly, bees get food from flowering plants and in return help in pollination. Students then explore how different inhabitants in their world could potentially co-exist in beneficial ways. 

While much shorter than typical worldplay, we felt that the project gave students an opportunity to build a deeper understanding of academic concepts by exploring their own imaginary worlds. It’s easy to include topics from different disciplines in sciences and humanities, making this a useful pedagogical tool for educators to use in their classrooms.

Key Takeaways

When most people talk about play for kids, they usually think of play that lasts for a few hours. But just as important is a deeper kind of play – one that engages children over many months as they create and develop their own imaginary worlds. 

  1. Building 21st Century Skills: Creating imaginary worlds gives a playground for children to learn empathy, problem solving and creativity – skills that lead to higher accomplishments in adulthood. Worldplay gives children a sense of agency in their imaginary worlds, which they are more likely to bring into the real world as they pursue their creative endeavors. 
  2. Worldplay at Home: As a parent you can encourage your child to play more imaginative games in their free time. When they share an imaginative creation, join in their pretend play and find ways for them to elaborate their ideas even more. While not all children may be drawn to extended worldplay, engaging in shorter stretches can still build crucial empathy and problem solving skills.  
  3. Worldplay in Schools: Worldplays can be an effective vehicle to teach academic content as they are so easily extensible. One way to do this is to create a long-running project in the classroom that students keep adding on to as they learn new concepts. By creating a parallel world and applying the concepts they are learning, students get to see things from a different perspective which leads to deeper learning. 

This article first appeared on CreativityAndEducation

3 indoor activities to build creativity

With current school closures and approaching summer holidays, most parents are worried about the impact of extended breaks on learning for their children. While most of us associate academic work with learning, there are many different ways for children to learn and build crucial skills during these times. Students learn as much, if not more, from play and social interactions than with pure academic work. 

Here are three different ways to stretch your child’s thinking and build cognitive skills like creativity and critical thinking, in a much more stress free way.

Reframe challenges as opportunities

One powerful way to build an innovation mindset is to reframe problems as opportunities that are just waiting for a creative solution. The easiest way to find problems is with day to day activities and chores that children engage in. 

Ask your child what activities and chores they find inconvenient and how can they improve that experience. When posed as a challenge, children can come up with clever ideas. One of our students, who found cleaning his pets’ cages gross, came up with a clever idea of a new kind of trash bag with drawstrings all around that can be used to line the cage. When you need to clean the cage, you just have to pull the drawstring and all the mess gets caught in the bag.  Another student came up with the idea of a remote controlled mechanism to take out regular trash so you don’t have to carry a stinky bag for a long time. 

While not all ideas will be immediately helpful, it helps children to start thinking of problems as opportunities that they can find clever solutions to.   

Join the imaginary play

Young children can spend, what often feels like, an inordinate amount of time in imaginary pretend play. However, pretend play is also a child’s cognitive playground – where they can freely practice how to think and problem solve in different situations – and in the process build a deeper understanding of the world around them. 

In more elaborate forms, pretend play can grow into fantasy worlds or paracosms, where a child constructs an entire imaginary world with its own rules and systems. Michele Root-Bernstein, Professor and creativity scholar, found that engaging in building fantasy worlds as a child was indicative of creative accomplishments in adulthood. Highly renowned people across different disciplines like the Bronte siblings, Nietszche and Mozart invented imaginary worlds, as did a large number of MacArthur genius award recipients. She believes that the creativity involved in building fantasy worlds, equips children with skills like imagining, empathizing, modeling, problem solving and rule-breaking that are essential for any creative work. 

Pretend play and paracosms also provide an opportunity for parents and other family members to help stretch their child’s thinking. You can join your child in their fantasy world and co-create situations that need to be addressed or problems that need to be solved. In doing so, you give them a safe space to experiment with ideas while building a deeper understanding of society. 

Add counterfactual thinking to reading time

The benefits of reading books with your child, from cognitive to social emotional are well known. In a study designed to understand the effect of reading in toddlers, children were assigned to an intervention group or a control group. The intervention group received age appropriate books and additional reading time compared to the control group. The results of the study showed that families in the intervention group that did shared reading with their toddler groups, and not just reading aloud, showed significantly larger vocabulary scores compared to the control group. 

Parents can give an additional boost to shared book reading times by adding counterfactual thinking, which builds both creative and critical thinking. Save some time after reading a book together to discuss the book and pose additional questions. You can create different counterfactual questions by modifying or adding an event in the story or by changing characters and settings. For example, what would have happened if Dumbledore never gave Harry Potter the cloak of invisibility, or what would the story of Snow White look like in modern times? Sharing your ideas to the same prompts after your child shares theirs can help improve their ability to think in more diverse ways.  

The original version of this article appeared on edCircuit