Peek Into the Imaginary Play World of an Only Child

Using simple toys and his imagination, my son practices the push and pull of social dynamics.

Parker Barry

My son, now 11, has his playroom right above my office. The racket that breaks my concentration daily sounds like he invited friends over without my OK. You’d think by now I’d be used to it. My son spends most of his free playtime making what he calls “movies” with playsets of every sort, from Fisher-Price toddler garages to models painstakingly put together from boxes that say “ages 14+.”

His favorite toys aren’t the actual kits though. He loves the characters that go on to inhabit the world he makes with those sets as backdrops. He loves army men, action figures, Little People and any number of molded plastic miniature creatures be they human, animal or “other.”

When he has the chance to buy anything he wants he beelines equally to advanced Lego kits and Playmobil sets intended for younger kids. And when we get home he promptly discards almost everything except the figures. Those voices that startle me, that’s just my son giving speech to the various characters in his movies.

Characters akin to imaginary friends

The reason I don’t ask him to keep the voices down even when they do scare me right out of my chair is because I know the value of his intense imaginary play to his overall development. He’s an only child, and those characters are akin to imaginary friends.

I know the value of his intense imaginary play to his overall development.

Once pulled to reality from my own little world of writing, I often eavesdrop on his improvised scenarios and while many are just stories about superheroes, monsters and bad guys, I’ve more than once overheard him re-enacting a social situation from school or — I’m chastened to confess — even dramatizing an argument he’s overheard me having with his father. When I recognize the “plot,” I notice he alters his characters’ role, often saying things he likely wishes he had said at the time.

He uses simple toys, the kind that were just as readily available in the 1970s as they are today, to give himself something vital siblings usually provide — the push and pull of social dynamics; a rehearsal space for interactions with a larger scarier world. One in which he is not the center.

Self-prescribed play therapy

Can his toys replace a house full of squabbling siblings? Of course not. But the benefits of his self-prescribed play therapy are measurable. In second grade he had social and behavioral issues severe enough to warrant testing and intervention. He’s in fifth grade now, and he no longer needs help with those things. In fact he is currently his class student council representative, starring in the holiday play, and the only notes home are about pizza lunches and field trips.

I asked him which he preferred — his two or three-dimensional diversions. I was surprised when he empathically chose imaginary play over YouTube and his Wii. When I asked why, he put it too well to paraphrase so I’ll quote: “Mom, what would you prefer? To watch Mario or to actually be Mario?” Point taken.

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