One of the best things when you’re a little kid is that you can be anything. If you want to be a firefighter, you can put on your rain coat and declare yourself a firefighter…and everyone who encounters you plays along, because you’re a firefighter. If you want to be a yellow unicorn with blue polka dots, you can just tell anyone who asks and that’s what you are. You can stir air in a bowl and tell people you’re making some fantastic feast. Generally (unless the person has some serious issues), you can get away with it because you’re a little kid and people understand you’re engaging in make-believe.
Try any of that as an adult…and expect people to move as far away from you as they can, and maybe suggest you should seek some form of therapy.
That’s one of the great tragedies of growing up, and one of the benchmarks we use to determine when someone is “growing up”. We lose our right, and eventually our ability, to engage in make-believe. And in giving up that right, we actually lose something pretty important, something we often end up needing to reclaim as adults – the ability to problem solve and innovate.
Have you ever wrestled with something for days, only to have a child walk up and offer a brilliantly simple, yet off-the-wall solution. I know adults who beat themselves up for being “outsmarted” by a child (and to those people, I say seek help), but the child has the advantage of being able to regularly engage in imaginative play, which allows him to look at a situation and react to it without as many of the “rules” that tend to bound adult thinking. Groups like IDEO have realized that adults who engage in imaginative play are better able to generate a wealth of both common and creative solutions to problems because they’ve regained that ability to see what could be rather than be fenced in by what couldn’t be.
Engaging in imaginative play also imbues children with the ability and willingness (and some might even say the drive) to see what happens. What happens when I do this instead of that? What happens when I put these two seemingly different things together? What happens when I put these two seemingly similar things together? For a child, these questions are second nature. They’re still exploring the world, and they’re still open to experimenting, which means they can discover things. Many a fantasy or science fiction writer will tell you that reclaiming those questions and incorporating them into your work can help you generate something greater than what you could create when you were busy playing by rules.
If you’ve lost touch with your sense of make-believe, it’s not too late. Find a child (preferably through a friend or a coworker. Don’t be creepy.) and just watch him play. Listen to him play. If he invites you in to his game, join in, learn his rules, and just let yourself imagine your own place in his world. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.