I’ve been thinking lately about surreality and play, about how children use play to explore the real and tangible world around them, and to shift their perceptions of it into something strange and magical. It’s also a good excuse for some eavesdropping on children who are using a ‘voiceover’ to explain their play to other children, to negotiate boundaries for shared play, to suggest next steps and urge one another on.
We take it for granted that children can use play to transform a stick into a sword, a table into a flying carpet or a cardboard tube into a telescope, but sometimes we can feel ourselves clumsy and unable to keep up. “No,” we’re told. “It doesn’t fly like that, it flies like this” or “it’s not a dragon anymore, you know”. They can turn themselves into zombies or superheros, old women and scarecrows. Once I met a boy who changed his mind mid-play, going instantaneously from ‘rock star’ to ‘really fat chicken’. We sometimes wonder at how powerful their beliefs in these changes are, whether the boundaries that we believe stand between reality and play really function for them. Sometimes we worry about tiny superheros jumping from high places, served only by their tightly knotted towels. Sometimes, though not nearly as often as we might think, they jump. There’s a great recollection of that in Bill Bryson’s tremendous childhood memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and a wonderful examination of the impulse and practice of superheroic self-transformation in Michael Chabon’s article here.
Superheroes make sense to adults, being a fondly recollected part of many of their own childhoods. Less easy to remember are the tiny oddities of play, the little moments of the surreal that children skilled in play can find in the profoundly ordinary. The group that I was listening in on was playing pretend at an almost competitive level. They were playing at silliness, at magicking up ‘something’ from ‘nothing’, and giggling fiercely at their results. Three girls of six or seven were gathered around a large paper cup, their voices first rising in excitement, then bubbling down into secrets, then flaring up into startling squeals of laughter.
“What are you making?” asked a girl who’d most recently arrived.
“A marshmallow bridge!” another girl replied.
“Oh no! We need eggs,” her sister said.
“Here,” said the new arrival. “I brought chopsticks.” She brought out her hand from behind her. It was empty, except of course for the invisible chopsticks. Another girl reached up to take them from her, and she was in the game.
Giggling to myself I left them to it, and headed over to pass by another group playing in the corner. On my way there I was nearly run over by another child, a boy of about seven who ran with all his limbs spinning like a windmill, an expression on his face that was approaching panic.
“Oh no!” he cried. “My jellyfish!”