Recently I have had to make the case for magic when talking to fellow parents and adults. In these conversations, I realized what I am really doing is making a case for play. This seems odd to me, so I was inspired to share my own personal case for magic and play.
Now more than any moment in our collective memory, we should support and celebrate play. Play is critical to our developing brains. It is powerful and transformative. It sparks laughter and shared memories of silliness and joy.
Play and magic are two sides of the same coin. When we play, we suspend reality and enter a space where everything is possible and accepted. We allow magic and the belief in things we cannot see to tiptoe in. Things like love and faith and hope.
When we play, we leave the door open for the impossible, the improbable. The magical.
Some adults have an expiration date for a belief in magical things that they either consciously or unconsciously apply to kids. An age when it feels not right to believe in magical and fantastical things. There is a continuum that then evolves from not wanting your kids to believe in things that aren’t real to thinking there is an age when “play” should stop. This is a dangerous slippery slope. I vote to never stop playing.
Many parents are proud of the rapidity of their children’s developing sophistication - they get to move beyond the “babyish” world of dolls and toys and into texting and social dynamics as primary forms of entertainment by 3rd grade or 4th grade. If your kid is still playing with dolls and toys (mine are) at the ages of 9 and 11 then they are behind and somehow deficient. I had one mother actually be annoyed with me that my 9 year old spoke of fairies with heartfelt belief to her 9 year old at school. This makes me sad. Not just for the kids, but for the adults.
Is 9 too old to believe in fairies? What about Santa Claus? Unicorns? Superpowers? Finding a magical door to take me to another world? Dress up? When do these fantasies expire? Do they really need to? Does there have to a line before and after: the world where magic is possible and the world where it is not? I still, at the age of 43, prefer to live in a world where magic is possible.
Play is critical to our brains and our emotional and social well-being. Imagination and creativity have no expiration date. Nurturing a belief in things we cannot see paves the way for envisioning innovations and inventions that seem improbable. Impossible. Magical.
Self-driving cars? Alien life? Printing organs? Humans on Mars?
These are all innovations that were once improbable and impossible before, perhaps even a little magical. And yet, these are all very much reality and definitively possible. To create amazing and improbable things, you have to hold in your mind the belief that the impossible is possible. There is no other way.
To quote the 19th century mathematician and inventor Ada Lovelace: “Imagination is the discovering faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of science.”
Play of all forms - silly, creative, messy, imaginative and magical play - requires a suspension of the normal rules of nature and belief. It brings joy and humor and wonder into life. If we push that out of our children’s lives at any age, we do them, and ourselves, a disservice. This ability to imagine and create is a muscle, and it requires working throughout our entire lives. My belief is that our push towards STEAM-focused play must also include a healthy dose of the silly and magical in there.
How do we do this? Let the Legos stay, or a few of them at least, and get them out some Sunday afternoon and all build together with your middle schooler and high school student - heck, why not throw a few Legos on the table at your next dinner party or family gathering? Tell crazy stories about what you build. Push your 14 year old to play one afternoon with you. Play a silly game that involves making up stupid stuff. Hold open the possibility that maybe a fairy lives under your stairs for a little longer. Maybe your 13 year old needs some magical encouragement every now and then and the fairy can leave her a note.
Acknowledge there are things in this world we cannot see or touch but are critical to our existence. Transform that belief into action and hope.
Play just a little more. When we are silly, we make ourselves vulnerable to those we love. This creates a lasting connection and a shared language of laughter that lasts far longer than a headlong rush into the mother of all imaginary worlds: social media.
“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” - Roald Dahl