My grandson Connor at three was good at imaginary games. Friends sent a large envelope with an outfit for his baby brother Jake. I picked up the empty envelope and said to Con, “Shall we see if there are any more presents?” I put in my hand and pulled out an imaginary gift, put it on my palm, covered it with the other hand and said “Open it”. He opened it with alacrity and we both gasped at the beautiful present. Then we discussed what it was, and who it was for; this went on for some time. Everybody got presents. It was fun deciding who got what. He opened his palms just like I did and feigned amazement every time.
“Would you like to go fishing?” I asked, sitting with the babe in my lap, burping him. Con nodded and I said “Here is a rod for you, and here is one for Granny.” I cast it over the water. He did the same. I lifted my wrist a couple of times, but Con reeled in with his right hand as he held the rod with his left, round and round, as he must have observed his father doing months ago. We both caught fish.
Then I gave him the keys of the car and invited him to drive. “Careful!” I said, putting the imaginary bunch in his hand, then after a minute “Here is a straight road, you can go fast!” and he did, remembering to stop at red traffic lights. He joins in all this with concentration and enjoyment and never says “Oh, I want a real present.” He gets the idea immediately.
Four years later, Jake and I were playing with two tiny toy soldiers and a horse. The horse and one rider (Noble and Sir Peter) are mediaeval and the second, plastic soldier (Frank) wears modern garb, kneeling with a rifle. We are totally unfazed by anachronism. As usual we were playing on my knee which sometimes is a mountain, or a forest or a helicopter pad. On this occasion it was a castle.
I jiggled Frank and said “Who goes there? What is the password?” (I had already told Jake the password was “Apple.”) “Apple!” he said (he only needs telling once). “Right,” I said, “come in, friend.” Then he brought the horse forward. “Halt! Who goes there? What’s the password?” and Jake as horse answered “Apple.” “That’s right! Come on in!” I said.
Then Jake took the modern soldier, Frank. He asked Sir Peter “Who goes there?” “Strawberry,” I said. “No, no, it’s Apple!” he said. I tried to explain to Jake that if the wrong password is given, you don’t let them into the castle, and don’t tell them the real password, but he hasn’t quite got the gist of it yet.
We often play with Sir Peter and Noble. Sometimes we have to hunt high and low to retrieve them after his absence for a few days. They may end up in the box with all the other toys. Being small, they fall to the bottom, but we always find them. Jake likes to be Noble and I’m Sir Peter most of the time. He always starts, wiggling Noble on my knee, “Good morning! What shall we do today?” I say “I’d like to go for a ride in the forest” and he says “Jump on my back,” and off we go to the other knee. Or I say “Let’s ride in the fields today,” or “Let’s visit the castle.” We have total freedom to go anywhere and do anything, limited only by our imaginations.
Another game Jake enjoys is “Rescue.” I wiggle two fingers, pretending to be legs, saying “Help, help! I’m stuck on the mountain and I’ve hurt my leg!” “What do you need?” asks Jake, who has an array of vehicles to come to my rescue. He lands a helicopter on my knee and I jump in and he flies me off to hospital where he becomes the doctor. He speaks in a deep, serious voice: “I’m the doctor, tell me where you hurt,” and I say “My leg is broken” (or whatever ails me) and he says “Don’t worry, I’ll fix it,” and in a few seconds we are off to the next peril.
“Help, help! I’m on the roof of my house and the river is flooding!” Or “Help! I’m lost in the forest and I can’t find my way home!” or “My cat is up a tree and he can’t get down,” and along comes Jake in a boat or fire engine or whatever we need, and he rescues me yet again. Sometimes he says “Are there any alligators?” and he throws me a rope.
His vocabulary blossoms. His latest word is “stretcher” to go with the ambulance. When I said, “Help! I’ve run out of petrol!” (I’m from England), he looked perplexed until I said “I mean gas.” So he is also going to be bilingual.
It’s quite tiring, but I’m rewarded when he says “That game was really fun.”
Who needs expensive toys for Christmas? It’s all in the mind.