A World of Pure Imagination

What do a mossy boulder, a messy minivan, and a massive (or miniature) jungle gym have in common?

Each of them is transformed, in the eyes of my young children, into something magical. Each is a blank canvas they can exuberantly fill with the vivid scribblings of their imaginations. Each is a relatively small space that expands in their wide-eyed perception to become its own world worth inhabiting, furnishing, and exploring. Sometimes even for an hour or more.

(Oh and also, the world they imagine is usually a house. I guess they just really like houses.)

What this means for me as a dad is that all I have to do to create a magical experience for my kids is to plop them in the minivan and drive them to a playground or to the boulder-strewn Appalachian Trail near our house.

Or if I want to save on gas now and then, I don’t even need to put the key in the ignition. They will sometimes directly ask me, “Can we play in the minivan?” So I just open the side doors and let them climb around inside, creating their own tiny world. The kingdom of Sienna, if you will.

The backseat of a minivan, the contours of a boulder, or the chutes and ladders of a jungle gym. For a child, these are mere portals to whichever corner of the multiverse they feel like visiting on a given day.

My kids are still just 6 and 4, so to some extent their sprawling imagination is simply a feature of their God-given software. Children are born hard-wired with the marvelous ability to transport themselves to envisioned worlds. In that way (and in many other ways), they’re way cooler than most adults.

My sense is that most kids gradually lose that imaginative instinct as they slowly morph into teenagers. But I like to think the decision by my wife and me to consistently limit their screen time will help our kids hold onto that curiosity and wonder for as long as possible.

For years, and even during the pandemic when I worked from home and we were all piled on top of each other, we were unwavering in keeping them to 20-30 total minutes of TV a day. Now it’s more like 40-60 minutes, which includes our post-dinner family viewing of Bluey or Max and Ruby or part of a nature documentary.

(Or sometimes a face-melting Caspian concert video since, as every good adolescent psychologist will tell you, rock music is crucial for proper cognitive development.)

The kids also don’t play with iPads or cell phones, other than to read tracklists and view album covers (“Can I see the picture?”) on Apple Music when we listen to music together.

I suspect this minimal screen exposure has helped to preserve the dynamic clarity of their imaginations. Our kids improvise freewheeling poems and stories, without an ounce of self-consciousness, that blow us away with their unencumbered creative sprawl. They are natural storytellers who are always crafting little narratives together and on their own.

I like to think their instinct for world-building would impress Peter Jackson and James Cameron. Well, Jackson at least. Cameron seems like he’d be pretty hard to impress.

It gives me great joy to hear their expressive little voices in the next room as they regale each other with wild (and sometimes nonsensical) scenarios. They’re like a 2-person improv group that takes whatever props are available, usually stuffed animals or little plastic pieces of furniture, and enacts goofy sketches for an audience of 4, or even 2. (Sometimes even 1 if their sibling isn’t around.)

I’m grateful to be an audience for their improv theatrics, often through eavesdropping from the next room so I don’t impinge on the spontaneity of the proceedings.

It’s a beautiful thing to behold. And it reminds me of a peculiar fellow named Willard Wilbur (better known as “Willy”), who once sang:

Come with me, and you’ll be
In a world of pure imagination

I am deeply fortunate that as a parent, I live adjacent to that world. Sometimes the adult world starts to seem bleak or untethered, which has happened more times than I can count since my first child was born in 2016. (What a wearying 7-year stretch in American history, am I right?)

When I grow weary or bleary-eyed, I find it comforting to eavesdrop on, or escape into, that “world of pure imagination” which my kids can so instinctively conjure up.

A world as pure as their untainted hope.

As pure as their sweet innocence.

As pure as imagination itself.

One thought on “A World of Pure Imagination

  1. It’s funny – the second I read the title to this piece my brain instantly had that Wilbur song going through it – at least that one line about pure imagination. Then I start reading, and there it is. But also “(Or sometimes a face-melting Caspian concert video since, as every good adolescent psychologist will tell you, rock music is crucial for proper cognitive development.)” I might want to have a word with this adolescent psychologist you’re using.


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