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The Importance of Playing Pretend

A Defense of Theater and Make-Believe by Brighton Coggins 

The moment when a child starts playing pretend is an important step in their development. Psychological studies have found that pretend play facilitates an enormous amount of growth in children's minds, allowing them to explore new emotions, develop empathy, build awareness of others’ point of view, and practice divergent thinking. By playing pretend, children discover one of the most wonderful parts of being human: telling and sharing stories. This passion for storytelling, particularly storytelling that lives in the body and that we place in the world around us, is something that too many people lose as they age. Do adults no longer need to explore new emotions, develop empathy, build awareness of others point of view, and practice divergent thinking? Of course not. Thus, pretend play should not only serve an important place in the lives of children, it must also be practiced by adults. This is the purpose of theater.  


If you have ever watched a large group of young children all engaged in a game of make believe, you often see an incredible sense of  teamwork being developed. As they embark on this creative collaboration, they must work together to create an engaging story that they all wish to partake in. Arguments rise, and then are resolved. Roles are assigned, boundaries of the world are defined, and the improvisational “yes and '' of the story begins.  As a child my role in these large scale games was often to be posted next to the dress up box, where I transformed my fellow players into cowboys, princesses, and superheroes with the help of a large selection of fabric squares and safety pins. As an adult, not much has changed. Like children playing pretend, the steps of putting together a theatrical production automatically lend themselves to collaboration. This is not only a necessity of theater, which by definition cannot be created completely independently, but a natural side effect of the artform. A theatrical company at its best is just a group of children playing pretend, searching together for the story that they all wish to partake in. 


In the telling of stories through pretend play, children are able to form powerful bonds. An example: for a short time I worked at an outdoor day camp with five to seven year olds. One particular child worried me because he seemed to be having difficulty making friends. One day I noticed him standing apart from the rest of the group, holding a stick as a sword and making the iconic“vhoom vhoom” sound effect of a lightsaber. This combination of familiar movement and sound had another boy running over to him within seconds. Though these two boys had never spoken, soon they stood with their heads together in intense conversation, hashing out character, setting, and scenario. After a few minutes they started to play, both transported to the world of their game.  They were inseparable for the rest of camp and as far as I know are still close friends. I am sure any adult who has participated in theater can look at this scene and see many parallel interactions in their own lives. We have all had a moment where the shared passion that we felt with a fellow theater artist about a story moved them from stranger to best friend within moments. This is the beauty of communal storytelling, no matter the age. 


Children live in a world that, for the most part, is completely outside of their control. For this reason, a pretend world is one of the few places where they can feel completely in control and, thus, safe to explore. In a game of pretend, children can safely experience not only emotions like love, happiness, and excitement, but also anger, sadness, and fear. This allows them to develop greater emotional control by giving them a healthy outlet for their emotions. Compare this to Aristotle’s catharsis, the idea that theater, by allowing us to feel negative emotions like fear and pity, allows us to emotionally cleanse ourselves. This is one of many reasons why theater can act as a powerful tool life to deal with the pain and stress of adult life. 


One of the most exciting things about watching children play pretend is seeing the  world of the story become utterly real for them. A tree becomes a castle, a mother’s shawl becomes a ballgown, and a child becomes a princess. They are able to completely transmogrify their world into something fantastical. It is an incredible magic trick, the secret of which lies not only in the expansive imagination of a child, but also in the way that make-believe stories are told. It is a form of creativity that lives not trapped on a page or sung into the void, but living in the body, placed in the world, and surrounded by other people. This is of course also what makes theater so magical. Like children we can shape reality, imbuing people and objects with new meaning. For the two hours of a play, we can make a new world, and in our new world we can expand our minds past the limits that the real world enforces. This is why the site of so many revolutionary ideas has been the theater. 


I sometimes worry that a person seeing me in a theatrical setting may think of me as somehow lacking in seriousness about my work. I know that I put forward a certain image of myself; I am excitable, chatty, prone to great exclamations of exaggerated joy or distress. I call costume shops “dress up boxes”, dress forms “Big Barbies,” and can often be heard encouraging others to “come play with me.” But I would never consider myself as anything but completely serious about the childishness of theater. When I say theater is childish, I don’t mean that theater is in some way frivolous or meaningless. Even outside of the psychological growth it facilitates, if you have ever watched children in the midst of a game of make-believe you know that it is a deadly serious matter. When I say that theater is playing pretend  what I mean is that it is one of the most joyous, mind expanding, thrilling undertakings a person can depart on. Theater, like make-believe, asks “what if I wasn’t me? What if we weren’t here? What if the world was different? What if life was not in fact boring and mundane and regular but full of wonder, beauty, and adventure?” Theater reminds us how to be children, which is to say how to be amazed by the world. I truly believe that there is nothing more important than the pursuit of childish wonder, which is why every day that I return to the land of make-believe and open up my dress up box, I know I am following my calling. 

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