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Why Did We Enjoy Roleplaying as a Child?

“Imagination is more important than knowledge .” –Albert Einstein


We all have those memories of making up fake scenarios and using costumes to act out stories. Remember dressing up as a policeman to catch imaginary criminals or pretending to be a chef, experimenting with dishes made by your own hands? Role-playing can be described as the act of imitating a popular or favorite character, profession, or persona by a child to bring their ideas and experiences to life in a fantastical setting of their own creation. This can be observed in the way children imitate their parents, siblings, or even imaginary characters, as they try out various roles in their own unique ways.


Why Did We Enjoy Roleplaying as a Child? A child in a superman costume cartoon, comic book art.

Role-playing is fundamental to any child’s development and is essential for their holistic growth. Child development theorists have pointed out that, in kindergarten, role-playing promotes the development of various psychosocial processes, such as the formation of affective-emotional relationships, the foundation for the child’s personality, orientation towards societal roles, imaginative growth, and the growth of moral or socio-conscious thinking. But why, I ask you, do we role-play? (If we put aside the heavier meaning of the word associated with BDSM.)


It is simply because fantasy, in some sense, provides us with a connection to a world of our own.


We become kings, queens, soldiers, or heroes in a world dictated by our own rules, while still retaining some semblance of the real one.



The history of role-playing began in the early 19th and 20th centuries when many board games and parlour games incorporated elements of role-playing. Theatre and other forms of entertainment have consistently utilized role-playing to portray popular characters from historical periods who gained fame due to their exploits and adventures. Particularly, in ancient Greece, festivals honoring the great Dionysus (the Greek god of wine, chaos, revelry, disorder, and fertility) laid the basic conceptual foundation for what we now recognize as theatre and performance.


Masks and elaborate garments were added to enhance the roles of the characters, providing entertainment to the audience seated in anticipation of this beautifully orchestrated series of movements and emotions. So, how does role-playing connect to this historical context? Role-playing, in its elemental form, represents a simplified precursor to the acting and performance professions we witness today. Acting and fully embracing a role share common traits when we draw parallels between role-playing and the contemporary worlds of acting and the theater industry.


Creativity is the foremost skill one needs to be able to create something new and unexpected, thinking outside the box with the available resources. This energetic burst of creativity in kids is not unusual. They love running around, saving the day with their superpowers, capes swishing back and forth, or even winning a cooking show. They may also enjoy being a teacher to a class of stuffed toys and animals. They relish the autonomy to make decisions and shape the story the way they want it to end. At times, they savor the feeling of what it's like to be an adult. We've all created characters that were adults, resembling our parents returning from the office, tired and in need of a glass of water. This fulfilled our desire to step into the world of adults, exploring their rules, their independence, and provided a fun pastime.



Then there are famous superhero characters like Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, and Ms. Marvel, who collectively occupy a significant part of any child’s daydreams. These characters often involve fantasies of saving the day, receiving recognition from citizens, and posing for photos. We all wish to be like our idols—popular, strong, and widely loved by the general public. Now, a bit of imagining, that would be harmless, right? Researchers and theorists have claimed that fantasizing has beneficial effects, offering small insights into a better understanding of one's own personality. As children, we naturally gravitate towards individuals who resemble us, think like us, or share our personal beliefs and morals. Children identify these qualities, often influenced by the positive outlook they've observed in various forms of media, such as television shows, movies, games, or comics. Qualities like honesty, courage, and friendliness form a long list of traits that children can emulate.


There is a negative connotation associated with encouraging role-play or fantastical thinking in children. In an age of rationality, logic, and artificial intelligence, creativity is often given little emphasis. Intelligence is typically measured and based on numbers, marksheets, and SAT scores, so why should imagining oneself as the director of a company or a teacher at a prestigious school be considered significant in a child's developmental milestones? It matters because, as children, we enjoy dreaming about the possibilities and stretching our potentials. Whether it's envisioning a moon visit as an astronaut or aspiring to be a famous singer like Taylor Swift, everyone has dreamt about their future at some point, often involving role-play and active participation in the realization of these dreams within the worlds they create.


For children, this imaginative play can serve as a personal motivator to exceed their own capabilities. Theorists have also concluded that humans have a natural inclination to engage in 'what if' scenarios to explore different paths and possibilities. In this context, fantasizing and role-play become less of a problem and more of a channel to channelize and augment a steady output of creative energy. So, let children wear those sparkly dresses and colorful masks. After all, ambition often starts with a little bit of dreaming.

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