Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"Let's Pretend Like..."

Cream of Wheat is so good to eat
that we have it every day!
We sing this song, it will make us strong,
and it makes us shout 'Hooray!'

It's good for growing babies
and grown-ups too to eat!
For all the family's breakfast,
You can't beat Cream of Wheat!

And with this ditty, from March 24, 1934 to October 23, 1954 began Let's Pretend, one of the longest-running children's programs on radio. I probably came upon it in the early 1940s. Each program was an adaptation of some classic children's book or fairy tale, and I loved and looked forward to every episode.

I don't think there are programs like Let's Pretend anymore, and I consider that to be a very great loss.

Are there, in fact, any radio programs aimed at children? Radio was to the imagination what water is to a plant. Children today grow up watching Sesame Street--a wonderful program, but fundamentally different from Let's Pretend on an elemental level. For one thing, it is totally visual: the child sees everything; there's no need to imagine what Big Bird or Elmo or Cookie Monster look like--they're right there.

But I think the major difference between Sesame Street and those earlier radio programs is that Sesame Street's primary focus is on developing learning, whereas Let's Pretend's focus was on developing the imagination, and I would argue that learning without imagination is like a cake without frosting.

(You can, by the way, hear a few of the original shows by going to

Do kids today play the same kinds of games I played? Most of those games did not have specific names but simply sprang from the utterance of the three magic words "Let's pretend like..." and from that point on, the imagination took over completely. A tree became a castle, a pile of dirt a fort, a towel tied around the neck a superhero's cape.

While age has far removed me from the games I played as a child, it does seem that kids today live in a totally different world, in which the value of developing the imagination is all but totally overlooked. The emphasis is far more on preparing children for adulthood than it is on letting them simply experience the joys of being children. Piano lessons? Violin lessons? Good for developing skills, but terribly short, for most children, on fun. While it can be argued that soccer practice, baseball practice and other sports activities are technically games preparing children for the grown-up world, they are structured activities designed to produce conformity, and the child involved in them is all but totally deprived of the need for any...well, individuality, any mental freedom to explore and engage the imagination.

Do moms today still tell their kids to "Go out and play"? And if they do, do the kids do it, or do they prefer to hunker down with their video games, the vast bulk of which, though set in imaginary landscapes of someone else's creation, seem to emphasize physical dexterity in pressing the button/waggling the stick to kill monsters than in actually thinking what it might be like to be inside the game?

Does the child today, sitting in the Little League dugout, glance up at whipped-cream clouds lazily floating overhead and have the time to look for castles and whales and Pied Pipers? Or does he just see clouds as he waits for his turn at bat?

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Nikolaos said...

I agree! I agree! I agree!

I grew up BTV (before TV) -- not that I'm that old, but we lived in the bush, far from "civilisation".

Our games all involved copious dollops of imagination. An old wheelbarrow base was the gondola of a balloon, a space ship, a chariot, a princess's bower, whatever we wanted it to be. We drew 'maps' of mythical places, we made up imaginary languages, we created magic out of the merest props and our minds. Our treehouse was something magic and transcendent:

"The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

And yes, words alone make you use your mind.

I used to read Lord of the Rings to my children, a page or two a day at bedtime. It took a year and a half to read it, and then we would start again at the beginning. You could see how excited and thrilled they were by the story. Recently they all thanked me for doing this, and said it had opened doors in their imagination. But I did it for my pleasure too. I could see how much they loved it.

Dorien/Roger said...

Thanks for the comments, Nikolaos...nice to know I'm not alone.

I fear technology is robbing us of the need to think and to use our imagination, and I don't know what can be done to reverse this trend. If it continues, I fear we will lose much of the essence that makes us human.