Imagination is a bright and wonderful aspect of childhood. It feels like a quality that comes so naturally to children. Watching a child so completely immersed in an imaginative world and storyline often, for me, is accompanied by a sense of awe. To me, what would be an experience littered with self-consciousness and hesitation, for a child just seems to spill out with no second thoughts. There is a magic to imagination and to the freedom with which children use it.
It is a common misconception, however, that imagination is strictly tied to happiness and joy. Imaginative play is the medium through which children digest and process their experiences, their world, and their emotions. This means that the things in life that feel the most difficult are often explored, rather than the things that feel the “easy.” Instead of facing these challenges head-on in real time, imagination allows them to be explored from a safe distance. In this way, the child can explore one challenge over and over again from many different directions, until they have built some level of confidence and mastery over what once felt incredibly hard.
If you watch your child’s play carefully, you will likely see this for yourself. There will likely be feelings of sadness, fear, or anger in whatever game they have created. There are a million themes that we as play therapists see within the play of our clients and every single one gives us information on how the child is relating to their life, their world, and themself.
Parents, we give you permission to simply allow the play to be what it is. There is no conclusion that needs to be drawn, no assessment to make, and nothing that needs to be done or changed. It is normal, and even necessary, for children to experience the full spectrum of emotions; therefore, it is normal and necessary for those emotions to then appear in play. What a gift it is that children can take what is hardest in the real world and explore it within the safety of imaginative play, where they will be okay no matter which direction the imagined scenario goes.
As adults, we may not use dolls to act out an interaction, or make up a 10 minute song on the spot about how unfair it is to do chores, but this impulse to utilize imagination is still present. Have you ever had a conversation in your head that you know will never actually happen? Or have you ever really thought about an answer to that “where will you be in ten years” question? Or, on a less pleasant note, have you every imagined that your friends and coworkers are talking about you behind your back? Unlike children, for many of us our imagination happens mostly in our heads. Like children, however, we too are using it as a mechanism to explore our lives, our feelings, and who we are (or would like to be). When this happens, the associated feeling is so much more important than the content. Did you want to convey via that pretend conversation that you were hurt while in relationship with that other person? Are you scared of being rejected or left behind in your social circle? The felt sense of sadness or fear in these examples is what your imagination is attempting to help you process.
Just like your child’s play, your imagination is helping you to explore the things in your life that are hard or big or new. What a gift it is that we can take what is hardest in the real world and explore it within the safety of our imaginations, where we will be okay no matter which direction the imagined scenario goes.