In the 1990s, a small team of researchers compiled and published an unusual list. It was an elaborate taxonomy of the imaginary friends of hundreds of three- and four-year-olds, with accompanying descriptions. Among the fantastical beings—filed into Linnaean categories like ‘Magical Child’ and ‘Ghost, Angel Presence’—were invisible, plaid-colored fleas hunted by space aliens, a chatty green cyclops with a penchant for world travel, and a mercurial creature named Baintor who lived hidden in lamplight.
That’s all perfectly strange, and perfectly natural.
“Children are going to play and be imaginative,” said Marjorie Taylor—a co-author of that study on imaginary friends—with a kind of verbal shrug in a 2018 interview. “That’s just who they are.” Up to age seven, she and her research partner Stephanie Carlson more recently concluded, the boundary between real life and imagination is porous, with children dropping into fictional worlds for hours at a time before re-emerging in ours.
But the surface of reality is slippery, too; kids can and do fall off. Nighttime produces terrors they can’t easily control—monsters peek from closets or lie low under beds—and it’s common for a four- or five-year-old, suddenly wide-eyed in front of a television screen, to turn to parents and ask with grave concern: “Real, or pretend?”
It’s a question that’s easy to dismiss as a charming glitch in our cognitive machinery. But a tenuous grip on what’s real might be advantageous for young kids, at least in the short-term. Imaginary friends, for example, are crucial to developing a sense of identity and social belonging: young children use them as foils to work through hard questions of “competence, relatedness, and autonomy,” according to Carlson, as reported in the Atlantic. And child’s play is chaotic by design—an evolutionary urge that drives children to confront problems by trying out an almost hallucinatory range of creative solutions, observes the developmental psychologist and author Alison Gopnik.
Recently, studies have found “parallels between the brain activity of people on psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin and the brain activity of very young children,” Gopnick writes in her 2016 book The Carpenter and the Gardener, and it is actually “the very silliness of play, the apparently random weirdness of it all, that makes it so effective.” We are the most creative, adaptive creatures in the natural world, in large part, because of it.
Letting Imagination Run Wild
Where and how we play matters, then—and structure, direction, and planning might be its natural enemies. So are adults getting it right? How closely should play be supervised? Are purpose-made play environments ideal, or are they selling kids short? And as free-form playgrounds become popular—natural and adventure play areas, for example, where there's an element of risk involved in play—are they more conducive to helping children grow cognitively?
A recent meta-analysis of 16 studies looked, in part, at whether unstructured play in “natural environments”—defined as those with elements like “plants, rocks, mud, sand, gardens, forests, and ponds”—was more beneficial than free play in more “traditional” playgrounds you might find in neighborhoods or at the local school: groomed, macadam-and-grass spaces with options like swings, slides, and seesaws. The participants were healthy, neurotypical kids from ages 2-9.
The analysis found little difference in the amount of physical activity that occurred between the two settings. Of the seven studies that tracked the movement of children at play, five reported “similar gains in physical activity when comparing nature play with traditional play space.” The researchers identified small to no gains in other physical measurements like flexibility, balance, and coordination.
But that’s where the similarities ended.
While the children were about as active regardless of the outdoor environments—the raw physical data was comparable—the natural play spaces seemed to encourage entirely different behaviors. Children appeared to be “smiling and laughing more” while playing in unstructured natural environments, noted the authors as they sifted through related research, and several studies in the sample reported large upticks in constructive play (building things with found materials), dramatic and imaginative play (acting out assigned roles or engaging in fantasies), and exploratory play (examining objects deeply through the senses). Moods improved after nature play—and cooperative play (playing with peers to reach shared goals) appeared to blossom in natural settings when compared to constructed ones.
The benefits crossed over into the classroom. Imagination and originality improved for children who played in nature versus those who played in traditional playgrounds, according to one study. Poetic writing saw an increased use of figurative language “from 31% to 69% after an exposure/intervention of nature play,” claimed another—while a third study reported improvements in attention levels, punctuality, and concentration in class, along with a decrease in challenging behavior.
A Bind of Our Own Making
While the datasets were small, the researchers concluded that the studies “consistently highlighted that nature play had positive impacts on developmental outcomes for children, particularly in the cognitive domains of imagination, creativity and dramatic play.” And taken together, the findings “may suggest that the behaviors children engage in outdoors” are a telling clue about the difference between free play in nature, and the kind of play that transpires in more traditional spaces.
So we’re in a bind. We tend to think, as adults, that no one could “possibly learn anything from an hour digging in a container of mud,” said author Erika Christakis, a former faculty member at the Yale Child Study Center, when we interviewed her in 2019, and so we construct elaborate environments for play, insist on adult schedules, and intervene when things look unproductive. But the research points us back to the mud.
The physicality of play obscures the deeper work at hand. It’s the need to transform the visible world—with all its stubborn mundanity—into spectacular scenes of conquest, loss, and acceptance that’s the greater part of play. We need the ordinary to summon our innate capacity for the extraordinary.
Mud can be anything we want it to be, but sometimes a seesaw is just a seesaw.