As children, we like to pretend. It’s fun. It expands our worlds, our minds, and our highly neuroplastic developing brains. Fortunately, we benefit from imagination well before we can talk about it objectively.
My innocent childhood pretending changed significantly sometime around first or second grade. Perhaps the transformation I am about to describe is evidence of a predictable developmental milestone much like the transition from crawling to standing/cruising/toddling/walking.
For reasons that were unknown to me at the time, I grew up playing “war.” (I am a child of the atomic age, having spent more than one session under my school desk covering my head, a practice in protection against possible nuclear annihilation.)
Often, in our play, I and a small group of friends formed a small military unit battling unseen enemies. The enemies and battles differed according to our whim but always had this in common: we would invent the situation and its changing dynamics as we went, announcing to each other with verbalized stage directions what was happening or about to happen.
“Let’s pretend there’s a tank just over that hill,” someone would call out, thus specifying the new scene. “Let’s pretend we’ve been ambushed by machine-gun fire from a hidden pillbox.” “Let’s pretend we’ve been separated from our company.” Let’s pretend…let’s pretend…let’s pretend. So unfolded the scenes, the details of which existed only in each participant’s mind.
With the “let’s pretend…” introduction, anyone playing in the game could turn the situation in any direction at any time.
Apparently, we had tacitly agreed to go along with this method of creating a new “reality,” which certainly aided the flow of events as we would variously run, duck, provide fire cover for each other, and coordinate attacks as required by the imaginary scene at hand.
Then it happened. Marching down the alley (desolate, crater-ridden road) behind my apartment house past some tall, Midwestern hollyhocks (dense forest), a comrade announced, “Let’s pretend…”
Suddenly, it occurred to me. What if we dropped the “let’s pretend” introduction and announced the new scene in some other way?
“Let’s pretend there’s a sniper up in that window” became “Down! Sniper!” with corresponding actions and an indication of direction and distance.
In a single moment, our pretending gained both greater immediacy and “reality.” We had moved from talking about pretending to simply pretending. We entered the imaginary scene instantaneously; imagination and experience became simultaneous.
This mental shift had such an immediate and immersive effect on our play that we never went back to “let’s pretend.”
But we were still pretending.