I remember babysitting a young boy and his sister when I was in college. We were on a walk and we spotted a nest with a colony of thousands of ants. They sped up and down their small domed hill, weaving in and out of one another with carefully choreographed precision.
The young boy seemed unimpressed by our discovery, but his sister was quite fascinated. She asked me what the ants were doing and I told her that they were practicing a new dance, which they were all going to perform at their annual colony barbeque. Her eyes widened with interest and she bent down to get a closer look at the dance practice. Her brother, on the other hand, thought my answer was ludicrous.
This seven-year-old boy looked me straight in the eyes with a serious glare and sternly corrected me. “Ants don’t dance and they don’t have barbeques.” I smiled and continued on with my story, pointing out specific ants in the group, naming them and explaining what they did in the ant community. Iris, there, is the town chef and she is an excellent tennis player. Bob, the chubby one, is the school’s science teacher. This is the first time he’s participated in the annual dance competition and he’s surprised how much he loves it. The more I creatively added details to this ant-world, the more I frustrated the little boy.
I had never met a child who was so against make-believe and it really threw me for a loop. As an adult, I still spend a good part of my day creating stories and imagining magical possibilities, and this young child was telling me to stop—that I wasn’t allowed to think that way…probably because no one ever taught him how to be creative. Perhaps the young boy was a budding scientist who wanted a factual response about what the ants were actually doing in their colony, which is why my fantastical story about dancing ants and barbeques was unacceptable to him. If this was the case, then I suppose I can understand his annoyance. However, I imagine that many children are never given the freedom or permission to think outside of the box and create playful explanations for everyday situations, particularly in school where everything has a right or wrong answer.
If we don’t teach our children that their imaginations are powerful tools that need to be exercised daily, then we’re slamming a magical door in their world and throwing up a bolt lock. Let’s give our children permission to play and to dream. Tell them how squirrels love slumber parties and movie nights, and how grass giggles when you walk across it with bare feet. Go ahead and put your ear to ground and try to hear it, even if everyone looks at you like your crazy, the way that young boy looked at me. I, for one, think the world is more fun that way. And for the record, I still believe that ants dance, and I know for certain that they all love a good barbeque.