For a long period in my life, I forgot how to play pretend.
As a child, I’d spend hours on the floor of my bedroom constructing narratives: superhero mashups between Green Lantern and Spider-Man, sequels to Nintendo games drawn on long rolls of paper, epic space adventures with my LEGOs. I’d find myself lost in daydreams of what I’d do with infinite wishes or if the crew of the USS Enterprise D found me cryogenically frozen, adrift in space.
While I don’t remember a precise moment when my imaginative play stopped, when I emerged from the fog that is puberty, I discovsered that I just couldn’t play make believe anymore. I’d try to daydream, and thoughts of my real life and responsibilities would intrude. I’d look at my toys and feel nostalgia, but ultimately see them as the chunks of molded plastic they were. I was resigned to letting this side of myself go. This is just a part of becoming a grown-up, I thought. Guess I’ll go get a mortgage.
Thank goodness I had children. Children have such a surplus of creative energy that even those of us who feel the most hollowed out can be filled by their overflow. They want you to join them to create worlds with creative gravity so powerful you can’t help but be drawn into their orbit.
By following my daughters’ leads, I found spontaneous narrative again, joining them for floor time with their dolls and toys. I learned what an alicorn1 is and how it differs from a pegasus or a unicorn. I play-tested newly invented games with extremely malleable rules. And when asked, “Will you color with me?” it forced me to stop thinking so much and just start putting crayon to paper.
At bedtime, I’d make up stories – stories about Pooh Bear and Piglet or robots or about little girls who just happened to have the same names as them. It wasn’t important that these stories were good, just that we crafted them together with love and joy. Some nights, I was extremely tired and the stories were completely nonsensical (Robot Piglet Goes to the Candy Store on the Moon), but it didn’t matter one lick to my girls.
Infused with creative spirit from my kids, I began to seek out creative play on my own. I took improvisation classes at the Coalition Theater. I joined a game night with neighbors. I found daydreaming again through yoga. I started a podcast with my friend Ross about things we like. I tried my hand at writing. Without my girls in my life, I doubt I would’ve been so willing to put myself out there.
As my kids have gotten older, there’s less time playing with toys, but we’ve found other ways to be creative with each other. I brought home improv games from my class that we regularly play at dinner, such as designing imaginary t-shirts. We play creative games like Dixit (where each person has to tell a story with pictures) and Concept (where you describe a concept using a limited number of symbols). And on rare occasions, my girls still enjoy when I pretend to be a monster who wants to chase children who have unbrushed teeth.
I’ve also started a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with my daughters, a couple of their friends, and another dad. Dungeons & Dragons is a framework for collaborative storytelling. Each player develops a character with a backstory and a personality, and during the game, tries to act as their character would. As the Dungeon Master, I create the world they inhabit and try to make the story fun and exciting. Plus, there are magic spells and gnomes and dragons and talking goats.
The hardest part of telling this story together isn’t the lack of creativity, but the abundance of it. The kids have so many ideas – and all at once – that it’s a joyful struggle to turn our time together into something somewhat cohesive instead of six individual threads pulling in opposite directions. In our first adventure, I came up with a relatively simple call to adventure that didn’t go as I expected. The local constable was looking to deputize some adventurers into tracking down some missing goats. But, instead of looking at the giant oversized poster on the wall declaring the town’s need, the kids spent hours helping the innkeeper and his wife make a delicious stew, consulting the local armorer on how to make a custom helmet, and haggling with the disinterested clerk at CastleMart over the price of arrows. They did eventually rescue the goats from a nearby goblin outpost, but on their own terms and in their own way. Nothing went as planned, but it wasn’t supposed to. It was about creating something together – a shared experience greater than anything we could come up with on our own.
I’m extremely grateful to my daughters for helping me realize the creative strength that comes with the humility of knowing that while you probably won’t create a world-renowned masterpiece, it’s still worth trying. I’m grateful that they continue to show me that the fun can be in the making, not needing the unachievable perfection of an end product. I’m grateful that they let me tell them stories and fiddle with their toys. And I’m grateful for any day, hour, or minute they still want to spend with their goofy old dad creating our own way.
1An alicorn is a winged unicorn.