Monday, July 30, 2018

Giving Life

On a metaphysical level, one could argue that everything is alive or at least a part of a living system. Some scientists even assert likewise, having used sensitive measuring devices to detect traces of the electrical impulses that we associate with life in inanimate objects, but under common usage of the term most of us agree that things like animals and plants are what we call "living," while inert objects like rocks and oil are not.

Unless, you are a child. Then you find life in non-living things: your doll feels sad, your action figures have courage. Even rocks and sticks and sea shells can come to life in your fingers. As I survey our playground or classroom, at any given moment, I see children, both alone and together, pretending that this or that object is talking, listening, and feeling. 

Sometimes they are so immersed in their play that we could swear that they actually believe those things are alive. I do a felt board story that involves a cat eating mice, one by one like a countdown, and every year there are children who become upset on behalf of the mice. I have another one that includes birds in a tree and one boy used to cry each time I folded them up to put them away, convinced that I was hurting the "birdies." As adults, we find it touching, inspiring even, this capacity for empathy. We know that they are still working to understand the line between life and not-life, that some day they'll be like us and know the difference between things that can feel pain, for instance, and those that cannot. We don't correct them because we don't see their instincts as misguided as much as stepping stones along a developmental path.

Most of the children I teach, however, if pressed, know full well that their dolls or rocks are not really alive, and while we adults don't tend to push them in this way, other children sometimes do: "That's not a superhero. That's just a rock!" And they will respond with something like, "I know that, but I'm pretending it's Spiderman." But I'm not sure they are pretending, at least not while they are immersed in it. For those children, those objects, really have come to life as they play. They don't think they are alive, they give them life in the way that a novelist, or even a god, gives life.

As they play like this, their heads close to their fingers, their mouths murmuring, the rest of the world pushed aside, children become their own myth-makers, storytellers at the highest level, creators of a universe. From the outside, we label it "dramatic play," but from the inside it is as real as anything else. Like Neverland or Narnia, these are places that are easily accessible to children, indeed they seem to flow naturally between this world and that, living in both as real places, while we adults in our hideboundness must struggle and strive to even catch a glimpse of the world behind the mirror.

It's another of those things we tend to unlearn as we get older and, sadly, when we do come across those rare adults who have somehow managed to escape childhood with this capacity intact, we tend to ridicule or fear or pity them. But we're the ones to be pitied, I think, because most of us have forgotten that we give life as we play. We've forgotten that we are capable, every day, of being the creators of this world, the cause, not the effect, and if we could only re-discover what the children know we could make so many more of our personal and collective dreams come true.

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