Worldplay: One Cure for Imagination Deficit Disorder

Worldplay: One Cure for Imagination Deficit Disorder

Worldplay: One Cure for Imagination Deficit Disorder

Inventing make-believe worlds in childhood cures “imagination deficit disorder.”

Your nine-year-old daughter has invented her own secret country in the intricate patterns of your living room rug. She designs clothes for its inhabitants and creates an imaginary language that she speaks only to them. Your neighbor’s sons, ages twelve and ten, spend hours dreaming up the play-by-play of an imaginary baseball league. They draw baseball cards for their imaginary players and keep a daily log of game statistics that no one else is allowed to see. They’ve all been at this for months, lost in their own worlds. Should you worry?

Worry only if children can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy: that could be a symptom of mental illness. As long as the distinction is clear, however, they are just having some serious fun. Children who invent make-believe worlds exhibit a strong and healthy imagination – and exercise creative behavior of value to adult professional endeavor.

The utility of this kind of make-believe play has not always been self-evident. It used to be that parents were alarmed when children at the age of three or five made up invisible friends; efforts were often made to discourage what was taken to be a dubious grip on reality. Many responded to imaginary countries and imaginary worlds in the same way and for the same reason. Does the child really believe there is an imaginary country on the rug? Do they really think all those batting statistics mean anything in the real world? Recent research has revised the old-fashioned response to imaginary friends: Not only do most children have them in one form or another, but they are a sign of healthy imaginative development. Our own research suggests that the same is true for imaginary worlds (in fact, we’ll have a book on the subject out soon). Worldplay is simply one of the many ways that children explore the world around them, venturing from home to secret places in the yard or neighborhood to play in private and wholly imagined realms. Along the way, they develop independence, exercise the ability to plan alternate scenarios, and practice the modeling and implementation of their hopes, dreams and discoveries. All of which come in handy in adult life. In fact, worldplay is highly associated with creative success in many fields of endeavor across the arts, sciences and public affairs professions.

The real worry for mentally healthy kids is not too much imagination, but not enough. No doubt you’ve heard of “nature deficit disorder.” Too many children today suffer from a lack of outdoor free-for-all play in natural surroundings (see But it seems equally true that a lack of free play time, whether outside or in, with friends or alone, has also created an “imagination deficit disorder.” Too many organized activities, too much passive entertainment available on television, at the computer, or on the web, have made our children into consumers, rather than creators, of play. Unless we give our children time for inventive play now, we may injure their capacity for imaginative, creative response to adult challenges in the future. Now there’s something to worry about.

In upcoming blogs, we’d like to make the case for imaginary worldplay as an important addition to our arsenal of creative strategies for meeting the 21st-century head-on. We’ll use well-known examples such as Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, who wrote some of the greatest novels of the 19th century, and some contemporary exemplars such as physicist and sci-fi novelist Gregory Benford and maybe, just maybe, your daughter or your neighbor’s sons.

© Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein 2009/2012

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