Essays & Articles

Put Your Mother on the Ceiling: Imagination, Reading and Play

When I was younger, this was my life:


Me, in my room, playing with action figures—little plastic dudes with masks and guns and grappling hooks. I’d take two in my hands. The bad guy would come up to the good guy and say something insulting. The good guy wasn’t going to stand for it, and he’d say so. The bad guy’d take a swing at the good guy. And from there they’d just whale on each other—upper cuts and roundhouse kicks and jabs to the solar plexus.


On sunny afternoons I’d go out to the basketball hoop in my backyard and would pretend to be an NBA star, narrating my career from my rookie season through my induction into the basketball Hall of Fame. I always made it into the Hall of Fame. I have a great imagination. (In high school I averaged .6 points a game. Not six. Point six.)


When it was too dark to play basketball, and I was sick of beating up imaginary bad guys for imaginary insults, I would crawl into bed with Roald Dahl’s The BFG, Gary Paulson’s Canyon, or Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee, and I would scrunch my body up real tight, and I would read about the most amazing places, the scariest events, the funniest people.


This is my life now:


My brother smashed all of my action figures when he got old enough to hold a hammer.


I live in Brooklyn, and can’t fit a hoop in my backyard anymore.


So I sit in front of my computer and write down all the things that I used to imagine when I was a kid. And people want to publish them. Then, when I’m tired and spent from the day, I crawl in bed with a book and laugh and gasp and try not to fall asleep until I finish the chapter.


Between my imagination and my books, I’m pretty much set for life.


You can tell, then, why I see reading and imaginative play as partners in the development of a child. Both encourage kids to manipulate reality, to investigate their own minds, and to explore the world seen and unseen. They are mutually reinforcing and equally indispensable.


Einstein, who sat in a clerk’s office and re-imagined the universe’s laws, called imagination “everything.” He 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.” Easy for him to say—with an imagination like his. Is this really true? And for kids?


As a seven year old, as a ten year old… Okay, I’ll admit it, as a fourteen year old playing with those action figures in my bed, I didn’t know anything about the world. When I narrated dialogue, when I invented scenarios, I was just making it all up. But it turned out, when I returned to the “real” world (the world of dialogue and scenarios with other actual human beings)—it turned out that everything I had imagined had been right. It had all been exactly right.


Maybe it was right because I had consciously and unconsciously picked up innumerable clues about the world as I participated in it, and then I used those clues in my play. Or it was right because I created my idea of the world right there in my room, and then I went out and projected that idea onto the world itself. Or it was right because I was just so damn clever. Whatever the reason, what definitely happened was that I had taken the world into my brain, manipulated it, and, emerging from my room, understood it more deeply, more clearly.


Imagination is like push-ups for your brain. If you want kids to be smart, really smart, if you want them to be creative and flexible and incisive, what you really need to do is give them a chance to imagine. Because nothing makes the synapses in your brain fire more rapidly, and thus reinforce themselves and grow stronger (yes, that’s how it works), than vivid, intense imagination.


Try this game, from Richard DeMille’s wonderful old book Put Your Mother on the Ceiling. Close your eyes. Wait, you’re reading. You can’t. Okay, do it with your eyes open.


Picture your mother, standing in the center of whatever room you’re in. It is your mother. She is wearing pants. And a shirt. And shoes. What color are the shoes? Picture them. Change their color to blue. Picture your mother wearing blue shoes, standing in the middle of whatever room you’re standing in. Now give her a hat. What color is the hat? Change the color of the hat to yellow. And her pants and shirt are red. She now has blue shoes, red clothes, and a yellow hat. Picture your mother standing in the room you’re in wearing all that. Now change the color of her hat. Change it again. Now, have your mother, wearing all that, walk to the wall. Have her take a step onto the wall. Have her walk up the wall. Is she holding the hat on her head? She better, so it doesn’t fall off. Now she gets to the ceiling. She walks out into the middle of the ceiling. She is standing upside down on the ceiling, with her blue shoes and red clothes and whatever color hat she’s wearing now. Now it is not the ceiling. She is hanging upside down from a branch in a tree. It is night. The moon is out. How does her skin, her clothing, look now, in the moonlight, upside down in a tree? What does the tree look like? Does it have leaves, or is it bare? Your mother is reading a book. Have her read a book, in her hat, with her blue shoes and red clothes, upside down in a tree. Can you see that?


Take a deep breath and lean back. Well done. Is your brain tired? That was some serious imaginative lifting. And that was nothing compared to what a kid does whenever you give him some blocks and half an hour to be alone by himself.


Wordsworth described imagination this way:


Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,


A six years’ Darling of a pigmy size!


See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,


Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,


With light upon him from his father’s eyes!


See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,


Some fragment from his dream of human life,


Shaped by himself with newly-learned art;


A wedding or a festival,


A mourning or a funeral;


And this hath now his heart,


And unto this he frames his song:


Then will he fit his tongue


To dialogues of business, love, or strife;


But it will not be long


Ere this be thrown aside,


And with new joy and pride


The little Actor cons another part;


Filling from time to time his “humorous stage”


With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,


That Life brings with her in her equipage;


As if his whole vocation


Were endless imitation.




Gorgeous, right? But it’s not just imitation. It’s creation. Isn’t it?


Imagination provides self sufficiency—I love that line, “fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses.” Wordsworth’s child doesn’t need, doesn’t want, a helicopter mother. He wants to have time to explore and play on his own. He wants his parents’ love, and he wants them to care for him and spend time with them, but his imaginative time is so sacred that his mother’s kisses are like martial sallies, attacks. He is processing, he is creating, he is developing his mind on his own.


Imagination is also the realm for emotional work.


Think of a difficult emotional situation. Say, you feel your father doesn’t love you enough. It doesn’t matter why—maybe, like one of my students, he throws you around the room by your hair; maybe he’s leaving your mother. It doesn’t matter. If you wanted to depict this situation for adults, you might write a realistic story with long, pregnant pauses and veiled expressions of disappointment. It might be beautiful and sad, like Raymond Carver’s “The Fling.” But it wouldn’t work for kids. Kids would be bored, uncomfortable, unmoved, by “The Fling.”


If you wanted to write a story that expresses the experience of a father not loving his child enough, and you wanted to write it for children, maybe you’d have the father cut off his child’s head. Maybe he would even put it back on later and act as if the child shouldn’t have minded at all.


This is what happens in fairy tales.


Now you’ve encouraged the child to put not his mother on the ceiling, but his emotions up there. To manipulate them. The child is looking at his feelings about his father, dressed not in a yellow hat, but in a golden crown. Not in a tree, but in a kingdom faraway, in a wood, in a cave, in a castle. The child is looking at his own feelings in a dozen different settings, from a dozen different angles, utterly unawares. And, if the fairy tale is any good, that child will feel and know his emotions, be able to manipulate and explore them in his quiet time, his play time, like plastic action figures, or mothers in blue shoes.


Imagination is the most wonderful gift we can give our children. It expands their brains, it strengthens their self-sufficiency, it gives them access to their hearts. We give it to them every time we put a good book in their hands, and every time we give them time to just play, to just be.

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