When Your Kid Creates Fantasy Worlds, Pay Attention

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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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8 thoughts on “When Your Kid Creates Fantasy Worlds, Pay Attention

  1. Love this. Can you recommend any further reading on the ‘worldbuilding’ aspects of children’s play?

  2. As someone who created a complex world called Katania when I was kid — a place that grew from one location to a federation of planets with different names, topographies, and cultures — I’m all for not discouraging your kids if they spend a lot of time in fantasy worlds that they have created. That said, it sounds like the scholars you mentioned started by identifying successful people and then discovering that world-building was a common trait among them. I wonder what their results would be if they started instead by identifying world-builders and then following them well into adulthood. While I don’t consider myself a failure, I’m still striving for what I define as success. I don’t regret a moment of the time I spent in Katania, but I think the value from it really lies in the rich fantasy life I led as a child — not in the person I’ve become.

    1. You raise an interesting point – what is success? Likely it is something different for each of us. I’m interested to hear whether Katania figures in your adult life at all now? Do you work in a creative field? Or do you handle other activities creatively (parenting, etc)? Some of the studies I read did have an element of tracing world-builders into adulthood – you might like to read more detail here: the book “The International Handbook on Giftedness” contains a chapter called “Imaginary Worldplay as an Indicator of Giftedness” by Michele Root-Bernstein. I’m having trouble with the link, but if you Google that title, you’ll get a few sites where you can read the full chapter for free. It’s long, but very interesting 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

      1. Thanks for the response and the info on the article. I’ve bookmarked it for future reading.

        Regarding success, you’re right that the meaning of the word can vary from person to person. In this case, I was thinking of what society typically considers a success — someone who has made a significant contribution to their field. I certainly don’t fit that definition, nor have I met my own definition of success, which does involve certain career accomplishments. Some of that, however, is because I lacked focus in college and immediately after graduation, and some of it is because I chose to spend many years focusing more on parenting my child than on my own career growth.

        My work is not particularly creative, though I do get to do some fun work-related writing projects as time allows. Outside of work, I write nonfiction. I tend to think of fiction writers as the truly creative writers, but I’m really selling myself short. The book I’m working on now (a parody of business self-help books) is certainly creative, and since I don’t know of another book like my first (a coffee-table book featuring the stories of people at a sci-fi convention), I can probably call that creative work, too. Likewise, I’ve never been one of those amazing parents who makes music videos or fantastic backyard forts with their children, but I’ve made up songs, written poems, and illustrated a book for my child, so I suppose I’ve brought a lot of creativity to my parenting, too.

        Katania itself is just a fond memory for me.

        You’ve given me plenty of food for thought!

  3. I work with bright kids with autism spectrum disorders and they ALL have secret fantasy worlds. Often their parents are not even aware of their child’s inner world because the kids don’t think to share it with them (the wish to share is a social skill!). These worlds serve as a refuge from the real world which the kids find chaotic, overwhelming, and difficult. It’s also a depository of all the knowledge these kids soak up, transformed into a world which is under complete control of the child. I just heard back from one of “my kids” now doing very well in college. He was feeling a bit sad that his once incredibly elaborate fantasy world was fading from him- he no longer needed it now that he was fully integrated into the real world.

    1. Nancy, that’s a fascinating insight. I know a young boy who, when I asked him about a pretend game he was clearly (but very softly) playing by himself, declined to describe what he was doing, and I just realized when I saw what you wrote that he was protecting his special world from me (who knows what a scary adult might do?). I love that “your kids” still keep in touch with you!

  4. I had no clue there was a term for this and I feel like my 4 year old has completely opened my eyes to “another world”. She has created a place called Summer Lake and there is a girl named Ceela who seems to live in this world. Now that I have been reading for says about paracosms and I am starting to understand more, I would like any advice as to what to do from a parents standpoint. She loves to tell me things that are happening at Summer Lake or just details of this place. Is it okay to ask questions or for further details about whatever she is telling me? I feel like she wants me to ask. This was a great article to read as well as the comments. Thank you.

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