Stop Controlling Children’s Creative Play

A common stance among Montessorians, though I’m sure they do not hold a monopoly on this belief, is that pretend play that incorporates popular characters is inherently and irrevocably less creative or imaginative than pretend play with “original” characters. This was a big thing at the montessori preschool where my youngest attended for one year, which went so far as to ban any and all use of “pop characters” in the children’s play while at school. This is an excerpt from an email that was sent out to the parents (emphasis is my own):

“Lastly, we talked about why we do not play “character games” even if they are peaceful (they usually are not, but can be). I explained that if it was ok with their parents, they can play those games at home, but we don’t play at school because a Montessori school is a place where children use their minds to create. If they pretend to be characters from a movie, it is copying someone else’s idea instead of creating their own. I also said I don’t think it is as fun too because you have to act like the character. If you create your own games, you can be anything you want and make up any story you want. We talked about the fact that this is probably how some stories and novels are started. I told a few story examples (a squirrel who jumps into the shade and turns into a shadow and jumps into the sun and turns into a rainbow, a fireman who saves a cat from the top of a building, etc. etc.)”

On the surface, I can see the logic. If you create your own character then you get to decide who it is, what it does, if it has super powers, etc. If you go with a known character like Batman or Minecraft characters, then a lot of the parameters and stories are pre-set (at least, in theory).

But it doesn’t take much to pull this type of thinking apart to reveal how flimsy it is. Is a child who pretends to be a firefighter or a squirrel being any more creative than one who pretends to be Steve from Minecraft? Did he or she invent the idea of a firefighter, or take a pre-existing idea of a character and incorporate it into their own play? What about when children play “house” pretending to be the mom, dad, and baby? Often those children are imitating their own parents. Is that considered creative because it’s not a specific pop culture character? Or is it deemed “original” even though they are taking something they’ve seen someone else do and copying it in their own form? Is that not also an apt description for children pretending to be Ninjago ninjas or Jedi knights?

Another branch of this general argument is that if everyone had simply copied from others’ stories, instead of coming up with their own original ideas (is anything ever truly original?) then we wouldn’t have nearly the same quantity or quality of art in existence. Which is flat-out wrong. Many artists of all forms (photography, painting, writing, etc) often start out by copying others. They take on the style of other artists they admire, try it on for size, experiment, play with it, and over time, by doing this with many different artists and styles, develop their own. Some writers begin by writing fanfiction before they embark on independent stories. We are inspired by everything around us.

My biggest problem with this argument is that my experience with my children shows it to be completely false. Perhaps I just have exceptionally imaginative and creative children, though I doubt it (my kids are smart and creative but so are most children when given the chance). I have watched my kids take characters from shows and stories and elaborate them to make them their own. I’ve heard stories of dementors, from the Harry Potter series, but who are good creatures who send out happy, warm thoughts instead of sucking them from people. I’ve heard stories of Jedi generals and their paths through the light and dark sides of the force, of their own battles fought, won and lost, and the strategies they employed within their battles. Inspired by our pet bunny rabbit, my oldest son once came up with mashup stories of medieval knight bunnies who went on epic quests. But apparently none of these are “original” or “creative” because they are based on existing characters from popular media.

The thing that makes play so awesome is you get to make up the rules. If you want to give Captain America a light saber to go along with his shield, you can do that! If you decide Iron Man would be better served by a dragon sidekick, you can do that! Imagine your life as a Jedi who somehow acquired a time machine? You can totally do that!

Isn’t that all that creativity is? Taking something you’ve seen or experienced and adding to it, changing it somehow to make something new?

To cut off a whole swatch of what we experience, to tell children that they are not being creative when they experiment with archetypes and characters they know and love, is absurd and limiting. Maybe we could just take a step back and give our children the space and time to play how they wish, with the characters of their choice and/or creation, without policing their play or dictating what is “creative” in our subjective minds.