Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Understanding Imagination in Child’s Play


Fahlman, Lila


The Painting

Almost every day, Yorgo paints a picture. Soon he will be coming up the walk, clutching, protecting his precious, painted picture from the elements. His walk and his eyes tell me about his painting, before I see it. The slow, pokey movements, the way he kicks the snow, the downcast eyes looking at the sidewalk, his silent entry into the house speak before he shows me the picture, a picture of grays and blacks and deep, dark blues and browns. It was not a good day for Yorgo. What is in the painting? A dinosaur … it got killed … by a meat-eating dinosaur. Beau didn’t come to school this morning. Yorgo’s best friend Beau had the mumps. The painting told it all: the loneliness, in a room full of children without Beau.


But today, Yorgo comes up the walk quickly. His face is lit up. He is happy. A painting is clutched between his mittened hands, to protect it. Each step is strong and gains in momentum. There is no silence as he bursts into the house. “Look, Grandma, look!” Reds, yellows, blues and greens abound on the paper. It speaks joy … his joy. While painting, Yorgo uses his skills to transform the world including himself, and to bring out in the appearance of that world, the meaning it has for him. As if by magic, brush touches things and transforms them. Soon it will change the world and Yorgo along with it; it becomes his world and he dwells within it.


What is this painting, this endeavor, this work by a four-year-old boy? What impulse worked itself out, through Yorgo and through the materials and subject matter chosen for this work? What is the intention? What is the need? Trying to reach his world through this extension of himself … his painting … is to reach towards a genuine understanding of his seeing his mark stamped upon things. His mark is stamped there, outside him, over against him as thing to itself, object to subject, which above all carries the meaning mine. He has engaged this paint and paper with a sense of oriented playfulness, a manifestation of his being. What is it that he has engaged? Or more appropriately, what is it that has engaged Yorgo?


The words pour out. The blue, yellow, green, and red streaks are a rainbow. He made it for his “Mom.” The rainbow goes to Africa. There is a mommy brontosaurus and a baby brontosaurus. They are going to make a circus. But no circus is visible. He talks about the animals who will be the performers … the clowns and the sheep. The red paint is the baby dinosaur. He decided “the brontosaurus walks on four legs … on the ground. They are happy eating the plants.” He made “a clown who is not here because the paper wasn’t big enough.” He made the “big one [dinosaur] orange … put red over the orange … the orange is peeking out.” Were there rainbows when the dinosaurs lived? “Yes … when the rain fell, it made everything moist … then came the rainbow. The mommy brontosaurus covered part of the rainbow. The baby came from an egg … right this minute. Below the mommy is the tiny one just broke out of the egg.” But the egg was not visible. Where was it? “Back here (off the paper) … he broke out with his tiny arms. He’s peeking in a hole here in the ground. He sees some little plants … he will eat them … he really loves plants. The mommy is thinking about her own plants. She has to reach below the rainbow to get her own plants. The rain went away, the sun is shining and the rainbow is up in the sky. They [mommy and baby brontosaurus] stand on each other like a circus …. I made it for Mommy. ”


Will Yorgo’s fascination with the world of the dinosaurs come to life on this paper? Naturally! Only an adult could ask this question. Here, the two worlds will merge in a volley of bright exciting colors. His world and the world of the dinosaurs merge. He ponders over the contents of the glass jars. His small hand thrusts the brush into the yellow color. A bright splash appears on the page. The small hand dips the brush, this time into the red jar, and a red streak appears beside the yellow. Again, the small hand dips the brush, now into the blue jar, and a third streak appears across the page. A rainbow! A rainbow after the rain. The sun is shining. The baby dinosaur is born. His mother stands over him. It’s a circus. The small hand dips, paints, and dips and paints repeatedly. As Yorgo paints, the world of the dinosaur leaves the consciousness of this child. He now holds it in his very hands. The world of the dinosaur, his world, is holding him. How is this possible?


This painting of imagination, which has given Yorgo the feeling of ownness, of joy, of satisfaction, reveals itself in its bodily form. He has made his mark. He has touched it, or did it touch him? It is not just a touch of the hands, but of the mind, the heart, and the spirit. To the child, this reaching out, this touching transforms the other into the own.


A four-year-old reaches out and strikes up a natural friendship with imagination. And imagination helps him to appropriate a world. Yorgo has drawn upon the contents of his world and imagination speaks to him of the ownness of things in such an unguarded and innocent manner, which is possible only for the human child. True, imagination or fantasy are integral to all human life, young and old. But adults have to work at capturing it (or being captured by it); except maybe for the artist who has never quite relinquished his innocence, his childhood. How can we as parents, teachers, or grandparents meet imagination in all its awesome and absorbing being?


The Closet

The sun felt warm upon my back. The book rested heavily upon my lap. Soon its words lost meaning. There was no noise. Two small boys … and no noise. The sudden quiet became a concern. Rising from my chair in the sunlit room I walked to the hallway and listened. A faint sound … but where was it coming from? The bedrooms appeared to be empty. Was that a whisper? Silence. Suddenly a nervous giggle comes from behind the closet door in Yorgo’s room. I have found my grandsons. The chair in the sun, the open book on the table beckon me. But the silence and broken silences behind the closet door beckon even stronger.


Where are my grandchildren? I see the closet door, but what do they see? What has the closet become for them? Two little boys, who are seldom quiet as they wrestle and play together, are suddenly reduced to a silence only interrupted with a subdued whisper and a nervous giggle. Should I open the door and disturb this world of the child? The child who plays rules the world … the world of the closet. Why does he play? The “because” becomes submerged in the play. The play is without a “why” …. it remains only play … the highest and the deepest.


What is it like to be two little boys in a closet? Is it dark? how dark? What do they “see?” What experience is it to be with each other? I sense a special kind of solidarity exists behind that door, a certain trust, the two of them together … against what? …. against whom? To open the door, to invade this world … this world of make-believe … would make me a stranger, an outsider … they against me, against the seeker, against the invader. I must restrain my curiosity, but my joy and anticipation are overwhelming. I must wait until they open the door, until they invite me into their world as a welcome guest … as their grandmother. I return to the chair in the warm sunshine and pick up my book.


I must have dozed. Suddenly a door bangs, and two little boys, laughing and shouting, rush towards me. They stumble over each other in their haste to talk with me. “Grandma, Grandma, Michael wrecked my castle!” What castle? Where? Yorgo pulls the closet door shut behind him and Michael. It is dark. Two hearts are pounding. Little hands reach out to touch. A nervous giggle and Michael’s loud whisper … then there is silence. A bustling of activity behind the door, muffled conversations are interjected with commands …. then silence.


“We made an underground . . . a big castle . . . it was very old . . . it broke down . . . no one lived in it.” Yorgo’s eyes grew large. “We made a carpet . . . the animals from my bed and the animals from Michael’s bed . . . we made a carpet. We sat on them . . . it was soft. We couldn’t stand up . . . it was very slippery.” The stuffed toys, the dog, the rabbit, the dinosaur, Raggedy Andy, cuddled closely at bedtime, have become a carpet. “It was dark in the closet. I could see Michael. My eyes are sharp . . . like a camera. I have good eyes. I have sharp eyes. I see far in the dark.” Are these words uttered to reassure Michael? Is the big brother caring for the younger one? Or do the words reassure Yorgo himself? “It’s fun in the closet. Michael and I have fun. He’s my daddy . . . he’s the Incredible Hulk . . . I’m the baby. The stuffed animals are my toys. The closet is big . . . it is very high . . . it is dark. ”


This child at play does not limit himself to the objects within the world. He plays in the difference, as a being who responds to the presence and to the absence of things. From the child the adult can learn (to recollect) the original experience of imagination or fantasy. In one sense, adults are not worth the friendship of imagination … for they have lived too much, seen too much and sinned too much. But it is in the deep love a grandmother cherishes for her grandchildren that imagination yields its resistance…. A gift from childhood to the caring pedagogue. The world Yorgo shares with his brother Michael can only be shared, can only be entered through the doorway of love. We touch hands. The small warm hands speak trust. His warm brown eyes are sparkling. They say “Welcome Grandma, to my world.”