Book Review by Helen Hadani, Ph.D., Associate Director of Research at the Center for Childhood Discovery.
Did you create an imaginary world when you were a child or does your child have a secret parallel world with strange and wonderful creatures that speak a made-up language?
This is the fascinating topic of Michelle Root-Bernstein’s new book, “Inventing Imaginary Worlds.” Michele and her husband Robert—both leading creativity scholars—are co-authors of the book “Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People.” The topic of imaginary worlds has not been well researched or documented, and Michele presents a very comprehensive, engaging and authentic account of one of the most impressive, yet elusive, aspects of childhood imagination—the spontaneous creation of make-believe worlds.
“Inventing Imaginary Worlds” is a fun read and is both scholarly and accessible. Root-Bernstein does a wonderful job of bringing you into the imaginary play spaces of famous writers, poets and scholars including Emily Brontë (and her sisters), C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. From a personal perspective, Root-Bernstein describes how she discovered imaginary worlds through her daughter Meredith’s worldplay in “The Land of Kar,” which Meredith created starting around age nine:
These young boys engage in worldplay at the Bay Area Discovery Museum’s Lookout Cove.
Several outings to the library later, I was on my way to acquiring a growing collection of imagery worlds, marvelous and diverse, and a growing list of reasons of why worldplay, as I was soon to call it, might just be the most important neglected phenomenon of childhood (pg. 4).
In chapter three, Root-Bernstein relates playful childhood invention to adult creativity by describing the Worldplay Project, a study she conducted with MacArthur Fellows. Root-Bernstein found that worldplay is much more common than previously realized (about one-quarter of the MacArthur Fellows reported creating imaginary worlds as children) and there seems to be strong link between childhood worldplay and mature creativity in a wide range of disciplines (e.g. arts, social sciences and sciences). Interestingly, many of the study participants recognized elements of worldplay in their adult vocations: “Creative imagination in maturity, it turned out, can look remarkably like child’s play” (p. 51).
Children at the Bay Area Discovery Museum’s Imaginary Worlds Summer Camp engage creatively in story telling, acting, costume creation and set design.
The book is divided into four sections, and my favorite section is the third — in which Root-Bernstein devotes several chapters to telling the stories of gifted educators that introduced in schools curriculum based on worldplay. For example, Deborah Meier, an author, teacher, principal and learning theorist, successfully implemented innovative ideas in several elementary schools that she founded in Harlem, New York based on her experience with worldplay (she was a MacArthur Fellow participant in the WorldPlay Project). Root-Bernstein makes the convincing argument in this chapter that educators and policy makers need to protect recess and time for free play so that teachers can weave “imaginative pretense into the fabric of classroom work, as teachers set the stage for guided play with curricular topics” (p. 159).
I think this book has something for almost everyone—teachers, parents, researchers and anyone interested in creative thinking, playful learning and imagination. At times you will feel like you are reading fiction because the detailed descriptions of make-believe worlds is captivating, but always grounded in research and a thorough examination of this fascinating element of children’s creative capacity.
Helen Hadani, Ph.D., is the Associate Director of Research at the Center for Childhood Discovery. She has worked with children, parents and teachers in various research and educational settings for over fifteen years. She received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Stanford University and has taught classes on early childhood development at UC Davis and San Francisco State University. Helen spent the early part of her career in the technology and toy industries and conducted research with parents and children to help develop new products at Hasbro, Apple, Leapfrog, and Lego. Most recently, she managed all operations for Lango Davis, a foreign language program that offered Spanish and Mandarin classes to young children in the Davis and Sacramento areas and created curriculum for Lango that was implemented in programs across the U.S. Helen has a passion for creating innovative learning environments that foster children’s intellectual, social and physical growth with an emphasis on play-based learning and discovery.