Monday, November 23, 2020

The Skills That Will Make Tomorrow


"Let's play Tiger Babies."

"I want to be a polar bear baby."

"You can't because tiger babies would eat polar bear babies."

"That's not true! Polar bear babies eat tiger babies!"

"That's not true!"

I stepped closer because it was the sort of argument that could escalate, which is always the case when "truth" is at stake. And truth is always at stake when children are engaged in dramatic play.


Of course, by definition, dramatic play, like all fiction, is about the imagination, a place where "truth" is, at best, subjective. Indeed, the children were engaged in a counterfactual game, one in which they were asserting something that is objectively not true: that they, human children, were in fact animal babies. In that context, it seems absurd to be arguing over truth, and adults often respond that way when they feel compelled to intervene, yet games like this are not only crucial for children seeking to understand their world, but also one of the things that makes humans human.

As far as we can tell, we are the only species that regularly engages in counterfactual thinking, a term used in psychology to describe the phenomenon of imagining the world in ways contrary or different from the way that it is. It is both the bane and the glory of our species in many ways. On the one hand we are cursed with the ability to imagine an impossibly perfect world which too often serves to make it even more difficult to make peace with the real one. On the other hand, counterfactual thinking is always the first step in changing the world from what it is to what it could be.


Indeed, the entire world of today is counterfactual from the perspective of a Stone Age human. The modern world is a product of counterfactual thinking, as will be any future that includes humans in it.

There are a whole host of things children are learning as they engage in counterfactual play. It gives them the opportunity to work on understanding what goes on in other people's minds, it is a safe place in which to engage in higher order thinking, it lays the foundation for literacy, it requires the social necessities of negotiation and compromise and agreement. It's easy to dismiss children's dramatic play as silly, as a waste of time even, especially when we hear them intensely arguing over "truth," but what they are doing is exercising their imagination and creativity. They are, quite simply, learning the skills that will make tomorrow.

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