Ask Amma

Autonomous worlds of imagination

In Why on 17 October 2010 at 4:04 am

Thanks to Sonika for sharing this excellent article, Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills by Alix Spiegel, National Public Radio, February 21, 2008. I am so glad that I discovered, somewhat ironically, that “less is more” and even “nothing is better than something” from a toy-vendor website.  That toy vendor was up with the progressive, holistic approach to play and had low-feature, high-imagination-stimulating “waldorf dolls” etc and actually wrote ” your child does not need toys.” It was just what I needed to hear.  Relieved from my search for “brain-stimulating” and “creativity-inducing” toys I was free to accept invitations to the imaginative worlds my daughter was engaged in making up already.


Spiegel comments: “But during the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff argues, play changed radically. Instead of spending their time in autonomous shifting make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts.”

Speaking of autonomous world of imagination, I have been thinking a lot about something I did recently. Even while I was doing it I was asking myself, why am I doing this? It was – we were playing blocks with a friend (20 months).  I asked her where is the green block etc. As if to “teach” her about “colour.”  But why, why was I doing this? I don’t believe in this kind of teaching. And yet there I was, gleefully drumming it in, “yes, this is green!” etc.

While responding to a question on unschooling yesterday, I wrote the below.


Why do we make efforts to teach little kids to identify red, yellow and blue? Primary for whom? for what? In Telugu it is not easy to distinguish pink, orange and red, because all are called red. In fact we can’t even say “red” but have to say “redlike.” There are on the other hand very specific colours named “eggplant,” “peacock’s neck” or “parrot” and heaven help you if you call these violet or blue or green (esp if you are in the matching centre!) Some years ago I participated in an experiment for a study on “categorization of color*” and joined a listserv called colorcat dedicated to this research.

So even if we know that by age 5 or 6 or 7 children will have to accept the colours in standard crayon boxes why not leave the years before that free for them to perceive light and color in various ways without us dictating names for these things. I say the same for letters and numbers. Treasure those precious pre-literate and pre-numerical years without rushing to count, classify, compile and categorize. Though the languages* of infancy and early childhood may not survive for long, the opportunity to discover and develop and discard concepts in those years, the sense of being a principal investigator rather than passive recipient of concepts others have tried and found true, can serve one throughout life. Let us stand on our feet before we stand on the shoulders of giants. (*Wade Davis on endangered cultures give us a glimpse of what values might survive along with non-dominant languages and concepts.)

Our daughter shared some memorable observations around age 2 about the number 0 and about white as a color. Yes, she currently uses our decimal number system and no longer objects to seeing colors the way we do. But we also got a glimpse of the questions our prevailing system raised for her and thought momentarily about what it would be like to see it her way. Alas, that moment may no longer be with us but the chance she had to protest the way zero was valued or the role of the white crayon is something that kindled in us respect for her imagination and analysis.

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  1. […] related articles: Autonomous worlds of imagination | The right toys | More on […]

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  2. I am now exactly the opposite regarding white, and trying to give it proper color status. For example, how many colors does the Indian flag have? It’s got orange, white, and green stripes, plus a blue wheel in the middle. 4 colors. BUT: in the national anthem, it says “taranga” regarding the flag. 3 colors? So I am trying to figure out which one Tagore doesn’t count- white stripe or blue wheel.

    Also, lately I’ve been saying completely nonsense words (e.g. icafubagloo) to people, and repeating it until they say “what does that mean?” Then I say “Nacu emi telusu nimakai pulusu!” meaning in telugu something like; “How should I know?”
    icafubagloo is just fun to say! Also, it is babyalk (i.e. baby talk)

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