My daughter Lucy knows a lot about China. She’s never been there, and she doesn’t have any Chinese friends. But she has the next best thing — an imaginary one, named “Kiya.”
Kiya teaches Lucy everything about the far-away land, from their foods and fashions to the games they play. When Lucy found out Shenzhen was 13 hours ahead of our sleepy Midwest town, she constantly updated me on what Kiya and her friends were doing.
I know enough about China to become its U.S. Ambassador.
Imaginary friends are a common childhood rite, a companion from a time when blankets turned to castles, sticks to swords and where backyards hosted the wildest of adventures. Even if you didn’t have one, chances are, you played teacher to a class of stuffed animals or cops to invisible robbers. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik told tales of his daughter and her imaginary friend, “Charlie Ravioli,” who tested the big, exotic waters of the grown-up world to give a peek of life beyond the limited parks and playgrounds.
As adults, we hear stories of Kiya and Ravioli and laugh. They show an innocent view of our manners and mores, in fun, charming and often nostalgic ways. No doubt, they develop the creativity in children, but they also help them cope with the complicated and mysterious world of adults.
But as iPhones and iPads take over our lives, children are leaving that playground behind. Technology doesn’t just change the way we live, it affects the way our kids play, stunting that wild world where Kiya and Ravioli hold adventures, and altering the adults that they eventually become.
According to Evan Kidd, a psycholinguistics researcher at Australian National University, imaginary friends help kids see various points of view, understand consequences and make sense of reality. “It’s just a really nice way of keeping warm and nice feelings available to you.”
By the age of seven, three-in-five children say they have at least one imaginary friend, according to the Universities of Washington. “Children who had imaginary companions up to middle school showed greater positive adjustment socially at the end of high school than children who didn’t,” Marjorie Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, told The Register-Guard.
Independent-minded children often use imagination to exert a measure of control over a world where adults make most of their decisions. For example, when my nephew broke his leg rollerblading, he “became” the doctor in play, taking charge of decisions — giving his imaginary friend as many shots as he wanted — or devising a way to escape the doctor’s visits altogether.
That play helped him develop an understanding beyond what he learns from television or the Internet. By pretending to be a doctor, and interacting with his imaginary patient, he was able to deal with his emotions in a way that let him reflect, sort through, and ultimately, understand what had happened to him.
Kids need the ability to use imagination in 3-D, so to speak; they need time and space to play in an unstructured way, and become creative and engaged thinkers, according to NPR.
When fiction authors talk about their writing process, for example, they often describe characters as “taking on a life of their own,” similar to the way children create imaginary friends. Read any biography of a great artist, musician or inventor and you’ll discover they often spent hours each day in daydreams, play and reverie. But as our lives become more structured, scheduled and electronic, we limit one of our greatest natural resources: our playful minds.
After analyzing nearly 300,000 Torrance scores — a test that measures creativity — Kyung-Hee Kim at the College of William and Mary discovered that creativity scores had been steadily increasing until 1990. From then on, results began to slide.
The decline was “most serious” for America students from kindergarten to sixth grade, he told The Daily Beast. “It’s very clear and the decrease is very significant.”
Of course, gadgets aren’t solely to blame, but they don’t help the cause.
Any kid can tell you: iPhones and iPads are fun. After all, which girl isn’t gaga over a cupcake decorating app? Children’s games are exploding in number, designed to spark artistic ability. But they often don’t do enough to shape kids into engaged thinkers.
Technology can help to “train the imagination,” but according to Psychology Today, creativity can only thrive when all five senses — sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste — are used. That means a tea party app can’t replace an imaginary tea party, especially with lukewarm tea and extra sugar to serve to stuffed guests.
In Lucy’s case, she didn’t use an app to pick out Kiya’s appearance, traits and life story. We did that together, using her curiosity and following it where it took us.
One day, when we took her to walk the vibrant sights of Chicago’s Chinatown district, and eat among the swirling smells and sounds, Lucy, in quiet consultation with Kiya, decided to buy a folding hand-fan, melding the invisible with the real worlds.
“It’s not that creativity can necessarily disappear,” Ron Beghetto, an education psychologist at the University of Oregon, told the Daily Mail. “But it can be suppressed in particular contexts.”
Unknowingly, we may be threatening our children’s creativity by giving them immediate and constant access to gadgets.
To foster, and not suppress, creativity, we need to give kids at least an hour a day of unstructured free-play, so that they’ll grow into healthy, successful adults, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But that amount is hard to get: kids spend half as much time outdoors as they did just two decades ago, due in large part to the rise of video games and mobile devices. In fact, the time kids spend play with gadgets is second only to sleeping, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Of course, children need tech skills for a prosperous future, but, like most things, it’s a balance. Even geniuses like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs engaged in “old school” play, such as climbing trees and playing tag.
“We really don’t know the full neurological effects of these technologies yet,” Dr. Gary Small, director of the Longevity Center at the UCLA, told the New York Times. “Children, like adults, vary quite a lot, and some are more sensitive than others to an abundance of screen time.”
Even those in tech, such as app developers who met at a conference, discussed ways of limiting their kids to academic games during the school week, according to The Atlantic. It’s often recommended to often restrict gadget use to just 30 minutes each day, in what may sound like a draconian move, but it’s up to parents to teach children to soak up the sights and sounds of the real world.
Parents need to push kids to look at the blue sky, climb a tree or talk face-to-face with friends — even an imaginary one from China. It’s only through real contact that they learn to empathize with people, understand the world around them and make better decisions in life.
Kids take to technology quick enough, so what’s the hurry? If we want to foster active, lively children, take those gadgets away and introduce them to old-fashioned play that develops a curiosity of adventure, big and small.
Just ask Kiya. She took Lucy beyond the confines of our small, Midwestern classroom to the larger world of new ideas and experiences. ♦