Imaginary Enemies: The Importance of Losing All Track of Time

I looked out into the backyard a while back and saw Stephen, my 10 year-old, flying across the grass on a yellow Hippity Hop, scowling fiercely.

He wore his bike helmet and a knight’s breast plate made of plastic. He held the Hippity Hop’s handle with one hand, and in the other, he grasped a six-foot wooden stilt, which he seemed to be using as a lance.

I followed his trajectory to a large plastic patio chair he’d placed at one end of the yard, an enemy of some sort, about to be conquered. The lance found its mark, knocking the chair to the ground. He quickly righted it and hopped back to his starting point under the cherry tree for another go. He was completely absorbed in what he was doing. I don’t think he would have heard me if I’d called out to him.

I have to be honest. My first thought upon seeing my son lunging at lawn furniture was, “I hope the neighbors aren’t watching.” A gangly fourth-grader, he was riding a Hippity Hop we bought him at age four. It made for a very tiny, very yellow, very goofy steed. But what I saw obviously wasn’t what Stephen was seeing.

Imaginary friends are considered a good thing these days, a sign of creativity, among other helpful things. But do imaginary enemies fall into this same category?  “Creativity is a good thing,” I chanted, in one of those Mama mantras we repeat for reassurance. “Even if it looks really weird.”

When I thought back on Stephen’s “knight-in-plastic-armor versus chair” episode that evening, what stood out was his sheer joy and complete focus. My knight-errant, I realized, had been in a state of “flow.”

This is one of the “highest states of positive emotion,” writes Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and founder of positive psychology. When we are in a state of flow, we feel truly at home and want to be nowhere else. “It is a state that makes life worth living.”

Children, like adults, enter a state of flow when they use their skills to the utmost – when they answer a challenge that’s almost too big – or as my yoga instructor puts it, when they go to “their edge but not past it.” That’s where Stephen’s jousting fantasy was taking him, his imagination firing on all cylinders as he clutched the reigns of the Hippity Hop and balanced the cumbersome stilt to vanquish a fearsome rival. It was an alien, I found out later.

I brought up the concept of flow with Stephen the next day, and we both generated lists of activities most likely to take us there: yoga, painting, hiking in the mountains, soccer, drawing, writing fiction, reading a challenging book. I mentioned the moment when he had been “fighting that alien.” Stephen nodded and smiled, remembering.

“A flowment!” he said.


Recommended reading:

The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience, by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.

I’ve returned to this again and again. It’s not the most lay-person-accessible book, but it has such good, research-based ideas that it’s worth wading through anyway.  I’ll write a post on it one of these days.

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2 Responses to Imaginary Enemies: The Importance of Losing All Track of Time

  1. Sharon Bernstein says:

    I recently read a book that transformed my thinking about kids and play. And while it doesn’t use the term “flow” it does talk about the incredible importance for kids of being able to lose themselves in their dramatic play — and how endangered those opportunities are in our modern world. The book is called Who’s Calling the Shots by Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane Levin.

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