Just Pretending

by Steve M. Potter

Why is it that kids pretend? No one teaches them to do it, they just naturally do it. Kittens naturally do it too. Every yarn ball is a pretend mouse. No need to tell the kid, "Look, this stack of blocks represents a house. It could be our house. Then GI Joe here would be you, sitting in the sand box!" The kid just does it automatically. When he says, "Look, I'm buried in the sand box," as he pours beans on GI Joe, his buddy understands the mapping of him to the doll, beans to sand, the blocks to the house they're in, etc.

Apparently, it's an efficient way to learn things. Perhaps the better question to ask is, "Why do we stop pretending things as we get older?" Sure, we hypothesize scenarios, but it's not quite as involved as pretending. The dictionary says to pretend is to make believe. But imagining is just in your head. Pretending usually involves some kind of acting out. The dictionary says to imagine is to form a mental image of something not present to the senses. I don't think this is the same as pretending. As soon as the kids decide to play doctor, the objects around them become surgical tools or bandages. I would say most playing that kids do involves pretending. Yet the dictionary (Random House College) doesn't even mention pretending or make-believe in the definition of play (v.i.).

I would make a definition something like:

So if by merely imagining and playing, we can learn, can we learn in dreams, where it is all imagined? Do we need the real objects and people to learn? Probably not if the learning is social skills.

When I think about my childhood, I recall not much pretending. When I played, I was more exploring the properties of real objects. Perhaps my pretending stage was too early for me to remember. I loved planes (and still do!). I remember 'flying' them in my hand around the room, making engine noises, but when I threw them or wound them up and let them go, they were just neato things that did amazing stunts, not pretend planes. The model rockets were not imagined to be real rockets, but were merely something that shoots into the sky and drifts down on a parachute.

I remember pretending, mostly in social context, like the 'Crabdominium', an upscale sand crab housing development Scott and I built out of sand on Kailua beach. Or the Mud Village he and I and Crista built in front of the Hill House.

Pretending, possibly for kids only, can be almost real. Like when we found a brick buried deep in the back yard, while digging just for the sheer fun of digging a really big hole. The brick became the trigger of an elaborate fantasy. I pretended, and soon truly believed, that there must be a huge buried palace or labyrinth down there. I recently told this story to a friend with a Catholic upbringing, and he said he remembers getting the longest nails he could find and hammering them into the dirt to kill the Devil!

To Make Believe

For a grown-up, beliefs are something you have, based on experience, judgment, etc. But kids can just draw a belief out of a hat and go with it (like Harold and the Purple Crayon!). To them, arbitrary, temporary beliefs are as good as any. Even their few 'strong' beliefs, e.g., that Daddy is their father, not a Jabberwock or an impostor, are easily shaken. I know now, from 30 years of never having seen a real monster, that if Dad says "I'm a monster," he is faking. But when I was 4, the chances were 50/50 he really was a monster, and for some reason I just never noticed before! I remember Dad really scared me a couple times by doing that.

When grown-ups imagine a scenario, or hypothesize, it is usually just a mental construction, lacking involvement with real objects and the emotional involvement of a belief. If a grown-up watches the crabs burrowing into the Crabdominium, he merely notes that sand crabs like to dig holes. But us kids, who have mapped crabs onto people, and a sand condo onto a real one, believe that the crabs think a tornado must be coming. Then the waves become Crab-tornadoes, and SEE! The crabs were right! The tide came in and the Crab- tornadoes destroyed their house--Now they are demanding disaster relief!

No Kidding

Grown-ups whose beliefs are not founded in reality are crazy. For kids, it is healthy and normal to have all sorts of wacky beliefs. Mine was Mr. Second. He appears behind you in the mirror when you are taking your shirt off, just when your eyes are blocked. Fear of Mr. Second made sure I took my shirt off really fast. Heaven forbid my arms got stuck in the sleeves! I still think about Mr. Second once in a while, but I can't, even if I try hard, believe that he might actually exist. I must be a grown-up.

[from my Precious Stone journal, entry 4-6-95]