Joyce Minor

'Let's pretend' sparks young minds

Editor's note: This is a reprint of a Minor Musings column from July 2009.

When I was a kid, I never had a toy that ran on electricity or batteries or that connected to the Internet. There was no Internet when I was a kid - all the magic we needed began with just two little words: "Let's pretend."

My toys didn't repeat 11 electronic phrases ad infinitum, ad nauseum. My toys carried on elaborate conversations with Queen Elizabeth, Kublai Kahn, and Prince Charming. They didn't transform from a car into a robot or anything so boring as that. My toys transformed into Cinderella's coach, Aladdin's magic carpet, and a spaceship that made regular trips to Mars via the Milky Way.

My toys ran on the most powerful energy there is - imagination.

In fact, I really didn't even need toys. With my sister, my cousins and a host of neighborhood kids, we invented whole civilizations, fought pretend wars that continued for weeks, staged elaborate weddings and funerals, and traveled to distant enchanted worlds at the blink of an eye.

Do kids pretend anymore? Do they ever put down all their electronic gizmos and just invent some fun the way we used to do? Do they even know how to imagine? If all their electronic paraphernalia were suddenly gone, would they rediscover the power of their own creativity? I wonder.

I remember inventing a perfume factory in the upstairs bathroom with my cousin, Suzann, then two minutes later dropping water balloon bombs out the window onto enemy soldiers (our brothers) two stories below.

I remember pretending to be secret agents with my cousin Ronnie. We'd make up names and complete credentials for ourselves. He was always Tom Quest, international hero extraordinaire. We'd act out plots with more twists and turns than a Hitchcock thriller. James Bond had nothing on us.

I think one reason all of this came so automatically was that, when we were not actually playing, we lived in a world of books. Reading was not just a pastime, it was a passion. Nothing, not movies, not television, not the Internet - nothing fuels a kid's imagination like a good book. When kids read, it's their own creativity that tells them how the characters look, how the food smells, how cold the wind feels, and how ugly the wicked witch is.

That world of imagination inside the covers of a book is what came alive for today's kids when J.K. Rowling introduced them to Harry Potter and his magical universe. And, as all kids have found, when that universe was translated onto the movie screen, somehow it never quite measured up to the one they conjured out of thin air as they lost themselves in the pages of Rowling's books.

So maybe there is hope for today's kids, but only if today's parents set some limits on the time their kids are allowed to sit mindlessly mesmerized by electronics.

Granted, that's tough to do unless parents also limit their own tube time. As we all know, kids learn by example. They'll do what their parents do. And they'll do it much more willingly if parents do it with them.

So, Mom and Dad, pick up a book instead of turning on the TV. Act out a story with your kids, instead of going to a movie. Play some games together that'll make the kids think and imagine - like Charades or I Spy. Don't be afraid to step into their world.

And it all starts with those two little words, "Let's pretend."