Essays & Articles

On Children, Imagination, and Our Busy Lives

When I was thirteen years old, an author came to my school. I remember nothing about her. Nothing, that is, except her answer to one question: “How do you know if you’re a writer?”


She paused, wrinkling her brow. Then she said, “Writers write.”


I was floored. The absolute tautological truth of the statement appealed to my adolescent mind as the highest form of wisdom.


Of course! Writers write. Not just when their teachers tell them to, I assumed, but voluntarily.


I turned the beam of that luminous new wisdom on myself: Was I, then, a writer?


It seemed I was not.


My free time was not spent writing—ever. Instead, I spent three to four hours a day immersed in that most edifying of pastimes—playing with G. I. Joes. At age seven, and ten, and yes, even thirteen. Sometimes I would go outside, where I would play on my seven foot basketball hoop, imagining and narrating athletic glories that I would never in a million years achieve.


I did not write. At all.


And yet, even then, I was preparing to be a writer.


I currently teach at a wonderful school in Brooklyn Heights. I have a set of students who are as engaged and earnest and smart as any teacher could hope for. They come from the homes of lawyers, doctors, architects, actors, and engineers. And yet while these parents are assiduously working to gain esteem and, in many cases, to break new ground in their fields, they are simultaneously working to prevent their children from doing so.


Here is a typical day for one of my students: wake up, eat breakfast, attend school, go to piano lessons, go to squash practice, eat dinner, do homework, go to sleep. A day with only one after school activity is a relatively light day. A day with no after school activities is an anomaly, and, tellingly, a treat.


The parents of my over-scheduled students—and high-achieving parents just like them all over the country—are trying to provide as many opportunities for their children as they can. If one is to someday break new ground in piano, lessons must begin at an early age. This is true, also, of art, and squash, and even ice hockey.


However, scheduling a day from morning to night without any time for the child to be free of adult-imposed structure deprives that child of the most valuable part of his day—the time to process, interpret, internalize, and re-imagine his experience. For children, it is not only during sleep that this crucial processing takes place. Very often it happens with a G. I. Joe cradled in each hand.


What about video games? Do they give children the freedom and time they need to process, interpret, internalize, re-imagine? No. As fun and potentially valuable as video games can be, they are essentially adult-constructed worlds that children submerse themselves in. Even open-ended online games like World of Warcraft do not allow the child to replay and rewrite an upsetting episode from the day, for example, nor relive a social triumph.


And books? Books, too, are adult-constructed worlds. But with books there is a vital difference:  books, unlike video games, do not determine your pace. Kids seem to spend about half the time in front of a book reading, and the other half dreaming. One of the most valuable things that a book provides a child is the opportunity to pretend to read.


Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” In giving a child time and space to process and imagine, free of the constraints of the world as adults know it, we are giving the child the opportunity to create the entire world—not just what we now know, but what we may one day come to know.


That’s what I was doing with my G. I. Joes—for three or four hours every single day. I was constructing my own worlds, worlds that accorded with my ideas, my desires, my understanding of the nature of things.


Now, as a writer, I do the exact same thing. The best architects, software engineers, artists,  scientists, and doctors do too.


For your child’s next birthday, there are many wonderful gifts you might give her. A great book. The newest video game system. Clowning lessons. A violin.


But the gift that will bring your child the most joy, both now and far into the future, is time.


There will be time, there will be time, 


To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; 


There will be time to murder and create,


And time for all the works and days of hands,


That lift and drop a question on your plate.


T.S. Eliot


Many children these days do not have the time “to murder and create.” And they need it. They need the time to murder the world we’ve given them, and the time to create their own.

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