An ursine community: imaginative play and writing

Today I want to share some thoughts about the imaginative play of childhood and how that might link to the writing we do as adults. I hope it will interest other people who write and also parents who are aware that this sort of play is important to their child.

I spent a lot of time with other children when I was small. I was the youngest of four and most of my extended family lived in Brighton too. I had a gregarious mother and our house was often the one chosen for social occasions in her friendship circle. Time alone was difficult to find. I could get it by reading, and I did, but there was another solitude that I remember as vivid and precious. It was the world of solitary, imaginative play involving characters.

My doll’s house was, for several years, the home of a collection of about a dozen small Paddington Bears. Standing about 2 inches high, they had little plastic cases moulded under their stubby arms and each faced, stalwartly, forward. I think they were probably collectibles from a garage or supermarket but, as they came to me second-hand, I never knew for sure. In my head, this ursine community was some sort of chosen family.

The bears were ranked by age and status, depending on colour of duffle coat and hat and general neatness. The top bear had a black hat, red coat, perfect little label giving instruction that he was to be looked after. The youngest, most lowly, Paddington was one in flowery pyjamas who had had the misfortune to be made with three ears. Their names denoted rank too. Top bears were called things like Charles and Henry and then there were the cuter names, Fudge and Toffee, down to pitiful names like Percy and Stubbins. It was a stratified world.

This was a family with love though. Everyone in the house had a bed with blankets and the older ones made tea and ran baths. There was dinner time and story time and it was very often Christmas. The Paddingtons took excursions in tissue box cars to camp behind the curtains. Sometimes there was a need to flee the house because of a threatening forest fire, or someone would fall from the roof while repairing the chimney. There was real drama. There was every chance of disaster. But, in the end, things played out well for these bears in their pink house with a gold number seven on the door.

This kind of imaginative play was, of course, a way of interpreting the real world – of working out my place in it. Here was age, class, the bonds of family and the tensions. Here was gender too. Paddington has always been a particularly appealing character to me, the neither boy nor girl but bear of the family. He was accepted in his otherness. To have a whole family made up of these outsiders was thrilling. I loved everything about them.

But, as well as the arena in which I played out the real world, this was also the construction of a whole new world. Time alone with my Paddingtons would whizz past. I remember it as an activity always interrupted by a call to food, or the unexpected return of older siblings. My mum has told me that I would do it for hours.

Of course, in their world, I could control time. So, those actual minutes with my fingers on felty coats and fuzzy noses, clambering my bears down the slope of the roof, or sitting them at the table for a feast, were the past, the future and forever. If a scenario was pleasing then it happened again and again, refined by the addition of props (red felt-tipped tissue for a wound, 10p piece for excavated treasure) or plot twists (but the road to the hospital is blocked by a cushion land-slide!) This was play and not writing, of course, but the mental, the emotional, sensations were the same. I have realised that it was writing in my head.

The similarities are quite clear from outside. I needed to be alone.  I made characters, I made a world, I told a story. What can’t be seen from the outside though is the peculiar blend of remove and connection that I felt in this play and that I recognise in the adult experience of writing.  It all starts with making the leap from your actual surroundings to an imaginary place. And, when that is done, it requires you to be in your characters, properly engaged with them, in this other place. And, of course, just as I was the great hand of God for my Paddington Bears, so I am for my characters when I write a story. All this together was absorbing, compelling, a sort of flowing fog that carried me along, even as I knew I was directing it. That’s what it feels like when I write.

Sometimes I wonder why we think that there is ever a time to stop playing. If we recognise that play is children’s work (to paraphrase some Piaget quote or other) then we should respect that in children’s chosen play we will see the things that are key to their happiness as individuals. Those things transform as we grow, of course, but I suspect they don’t ever really disappear. I don’t need a doll’s house full of Paddingtons to play with (not unless it’s a really bad day, anyway) but I do need to write.

Old Paddington

The wonder of Ebay means I have found one of the very Paddingtons of my childhood. This one reminds me somewhat of Stubbins but he has lost his hat. Seven quid. I might have to…


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