When I was a little girl, one of my favourite stories was by Astrid Lindgren, and it was called ‘Nils Karlsson, the Elf.’
It tells the story of a lonely little boy named Bertil, left alone each day while his parents go out to work. Beneath his bed is a nail, which – when he touches it and says a magic word – makes him small enough to play with a tiny elf named Nils Karlsson who happens to live in his bedroom. So, the story tells us, Bertil was lonely and afraid no more when his parents left him alone, because now he had a friend to keep him company, and the whole world looked new and different when he was no bigger than a thumb.
I loved that story then, and I love it now. I love it because it makes me realise how much a child’s imagination can hold – how many worlds, how many characters, how much magic. I loved it particularly because Bertil can grow big again when he’s finished playing, and so he has his parents on one hand, and the magical world of Nils Karlsson on the other. That, to me, was the perfect story.
This past weekend, my husband and I visited one of his oldest friends, a man whom my husband has known since they were both about four years old. This is particularly wonderful because my husband’s friend now has a daughter who has just turned four, as well as a little son who is just over eighteen months old. It was amazing to see my husband and his friend fall into the speech patterns and comfortable-ness of their shared youth while his wife and I played with the children – and by played, I do mean played. The four-year-old has an imagination the size of eternity.
During the few hours we spent together, this little girl, her brother, her Mummy and me took a plane journey across another galaxy in order to find a beach in China where we could swim with all our clothes on. We had a safety belt to hold us in our seats (which, when not moonlighting as airline security equipment, is a skipping rope); we had one ‘crash helmet’ (which was a witch’s hat left over from Halloween) which we had to share between us; we suffered alien attacks, volcanic eruptions, inter-stellar fuel difficulties and a severe make-believe coffee shortage until, finally, we arrived at our magic beach.
It was the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time.
I was amazed to hear the constant patter of chat from this tiny girl, all the time making up more and more elaborate tales, constructing story world after story world, taking changes and twists into account. Everything became magical – her scooter became a rocket, her parents’ bedroom a mighty sea. Her own bedroom was a magical cave. She read to me from her books, and told me better stories than the ones written on the page.
And then, like Bertil from my favourite story, when she wanted to return to her ‘own’ world it was a simple matter of refocusing her gaze. Her magic rocket became her scooter again, and her house stopped being an inter-galactic cruise ship just long enough for her to reassure herself that her Mummy and Daddy were still there, or for her to get some juice or finish her dinner. Then, when she wanted it to, her beautiful imaginary world clicked back into place and it was all systems go once more.
I think there’s something very profound in that little lesson.
It also made me wonder whether my own imagination, old and dessicated as it has become, is big enough and flexible enough to hold all the worlds that children can imagine so effortlessly, and so fluidly. I can but try.
(Note: my husband drew my attention to this article, a blog in Scientific American, about the value of pretend play to a child’s development. It’s very interesting, and rather relevant to my own little post. So, check it out if you like!)