When Your Kid Creates Fantasy Worlds, Pay Attention

Photo: Creative Commons (Woodley Wonderworks)
Photo: Creative Commons (Woodley Wonderworks)

We all know the legends about the importance of garages in the childhoods of unusually successful adults (where would Bill Gates and Steve Jobs be if their homes had only had carports?). Of course, the coincidental launch of two computer geniuses from garages does not indicate that a predilection for hanging out among Dad’s tools and old car parts is a sign of future greatness, but it turns out, there is another simple activity that is.

A number of scholars who study the origins of creativity have concluded through an analysis of the childhood play habits of famous successful people that a significant number of them played in a certain way as they were growing up.

Specifically, it appears that children who create elaborate pretend worlds tend to grow up to contribute significantly to the world in unusually creative ways. Whether these contributions are ground-breaking literary masterpieces, or innovative technological advances, or pioneering reorganizations of traditional social conventions, research indicates that creative success can be predicted by this innocuous childhood activity.

In the world of scientific analysis, a pretend world is known as a “paracosm,” and the process of playing inside it is known as “worldplay.” Pretend play generally begins around age two, typically with dolls and figures. About 1 in 30 children will continue to develop this activity into an extremely elaborate world of their own design. We’re not talking about a few Lego buildings for their Superman figure to leap or hunt villains among, but a completely new world shaped from their imagination, with its own maps and territories, social rules and activities, and perhaps even a language. Over the course of months or years, these children will return again and again to this world, playing inside it, and continuing to add to it in a very focused and determined way. It’s a bit like a Dungeons & Dragons game, but without rules.

Authors Robert Louis Stevenson, C.S. Lewis, and Gertrude Stein, actor Peter Ustinov, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart all left evidence of childhood worldplay. The most well-documented pretend world was created by the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) and their brother Bronwell. “Great Glass Town” was their capital of “Verdopolis,” an imaginary African country. Beginning with toy soldiers whose military campaigns the siblings controlled, the pretend world expanded and flourished into a completely realized civilization, with hundreds of imaginary citizens (with storylines), landscapes (with illustrations), and accessories (including magazines the children produced).

Robert Silvey, a less well-known name, but no less important historically, created an elaborate paracosm in his childhood complete with maps, newspapers, a history, a constitution, almanacs, and financial tables. He grew up to create a brand new field, audience research, for the BBC, combining statistics, sociology, and psychology. In recognition of his success in his career, he was awarded an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 1960.

Childhood worldplay is also a significant indicator of intellectual giftedness. Reportedly, one in four gifted children spend time creating paracosms, which is “more than twice the maximal rate projected for the population at large.” Scientists who study the phenomena characterize worldplay as a “learning laboratory” where children can immerse themselves in “self-taught creative behaviors.”

While children who engage in worldplay may seem to be anti-social, or aloof from other children, research suggests that it is not advisable for parents to try to introduce other children to the play, or to join in themselves. It is important for the creative child to have time to work alone, or even in secret if they so desire. This time alone is key to their development of independence. Social skills can be learned at other times!

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