My friend Andrew posted this photo of his son Sean on Facebook the other day, and it got me to thinking about Raggedy Ann and Andy. Or more to the point, kids and imagination.
When our daughters were small, they loved stuffed things – dolls, animals, the like. Our older one had an entire menagerie that we referred to collectively as “the friends,” and when we took a trip, the friends had to go along. They were simply part of the family, and for our daughter, they were a little community of bonny companions with whom she played and talked. She endowed each of them with a personality that came right out of her imagination.
Our younger daughter likewise had a bevy of stuffed friends, and for her, they often made up a classroom. She liked nothing better than to arrange the friends in front of a chalkboard and teach school to them. Her lesson plans were quite involved, and ranged across the firmament of subjects the daughter was herself learning in school.
For both kids, the menagerie included Raggedy Ann and Andy. I figured out that the best thing about Ann and Andy was, they didn’t do anything. And therefore they could do anything. Ann and Andy didn’t cry, burp, close their eyes, or say “Mama.” Our girls had dolls that did those sorts of things, but they weren’t much interested in them. Ann and Andy, though, could be, do, or say anything that the girls’ imaginations could conjure up. The possibilities were limitless. I think the same thing applies to Sean and his jar. He can imagine the jar being full of anything or nothing, or being just a jar, or something entirely different.
Lots of toys these days do lots of things. You wind them up or put in batteries and turn them on or switch on the remote, and then you sit and watch them do whatever they do. And that’s it. They are what they are. But if you’re a kid (or an adult, for that matter) with imagination, they can become much more. And maybe, the less they do, the more they can become.
Kids are born with a vast capacity for imagination, plopped down in a world that’s strange and fascinating and laden with possibilities. There are all sorts of ways to cultivate imagination, and the best one is reading. It starts with the kid being held and cuddled by someone older, feeling safe and warm and hearing the comforting rise and fall of a familiar voice. The child associates that good feeling with whatever reading material is being held in the older person’s hands, full of pictures and little black things that squiggle across the page. At some point, as language develops, the child begins to realize that the pictures and squiggles are telling a story, setting off more pictures in the child’s mind. And once that happens, the kid is hooked. Imagination, I tell young people, is what you see when your eyes are closed. You might be looking at what’s on the page, but what you’re really seeing is that movie reel going on inside.
When a child’s imagination is nurtured and set free, good things happen. Kids with imagination do well in school and grow up to be people who solve problems because they can envision how things can be better. For a kid with imagination, a toy is just a receptacle for possibility, and the sophistication of the toy doesn’t matter so much. Raggedy Ann and Andy will do just fine. Or just a jar.