So Noah and the Beebops set off on an adventure, often involving air travel, pirates, policemen, cannonballs, submarines, the drinking of fluffies and the eating of lollycake. There is little movement. He lies or sits beside me and I voice the Beebops and make them walk or wriggle or leap as stage directions require, but the game is almost entirely verbal. I try not to direct the plotlines, except when the tedium of repetition forces me to seek a little variation. At three years old Noah is producing fiction, and finds the exercise addictively compelling.
This is what kids do. All of them. Eavesdrop on their games, and they are developing characters and stories and timelines and narrative tension. Look at the young of other species and they all play, for this is the way little animals learn the necessary skills to survive and become big animals. Carnivores play at stalking and catching and killing. Herbivores play at leaping and dodging and evading. Social animals of whatever dietary habit play in groups, developing the social nuances which make their herd or flock or gaggle or murder or pod viable. So, why do little humans play by creating fiction?
The purpose of play is skill development, and several different layers of skills are being worked on simultaneously. So he sits with his lego, and is learning all manner of things about the manipulation of physical objects. He is facing obstacles and solving problems. And as he negotiates with his cousins about who gets to use that particular size of tyre he is learning useful social skills. But all the time, threading its way through the play is this overriding element of fiction: there is a plot being developed and improvised. And sitting down with me and the Beebops there is pretty much nothing other than the fiction. I think he, and all children play this way because it is an essential human skill to be learned and developed. We are, all of us, adepts at producing fiction, because that is how we are in the world. We are here as part of this vast multifaceted event we call the universe and we make sense of all that is happening around us by the powerful device of fiction: we make up a story which explains the world, and this story becomes self affirming because it becomes a kind of filter through which we experience all that is happening around us.
Of course, by watching his favourite videos with him I can see where many of his plot themes come from, and I am reminded that our work with fiction is two fold. We produce and we hear stories and these two processes are inextricably entangled. And as his grandfather I am faced with my share of responsibility for his development: how do I foster his ability to tell stories that are as true as they might possibly be? And how do I monitor what stories he is being told, for these are surely and indelibly shaping who and what he is.