Many stories from cultures all around the world speak of a heavenly child, a playful divine being that comes down to Earth, bringing with it the warmth and light of the Sun, in order to bring new life to everything that has become solid and hard, cold, sclerotic and dark. From Thailand, we know of Prince Dhamma-Ban Kuman. A spirit being, conceived by his childless old parents with the help of a sacred tree spirit, he grew up in a hut by the side of the river, underneath the sacred Sai-tree that had helped him to earth, until he was seven years old. There, he learned to understand the language of all the animals, but until he turned seven, the language of humans remained a mystery to him. Only when he did finally begin to speak, the wisdom that poured forth from this child, whom everyone had thought backward, was so great, that people came from far and wide to ask his advice. Through him, finally, the Great Sun Spirit, Tao-Maha-Songkran, enters the Human Being, bringing new warmth, light and life to the Earth. (His feat is celebrated every year, on April 13-15, during the Songkran festival, around the same time as the Christian Easter festival.)
Imaginative play is one of the main developmental accomplishments of children in the first seven years of life. In the early period of sensory and motor play, children explore and get to know their own body and its relationship to the physical environment: the movement of their limbs, the manifold sense impressions that surround them, and the way these sense impressions can be created and shaped through their own activity. This phase leads over into the development of parallel play: children create patterns in the world, through their activity, making sand cake after sand cake, drawing circle after circle, often side-by-side with each other, and yet still each in his or her own hut. But then, as the interest shifts from the repetitive rhythms of songs and rhymes to the persons and events encountered in stories and in life, play becomes truly imaginative and interactive: children discover the power to make meaning, to create reality by giving new meaning to objects and situations. The playground becomes a farmyard at one time, an ocean at another. The tree trunk morphs from pig to lighthouse. This new and ever newly created reality is a shared reality; it exists within the physical environment, and yet transcends it. Only around the time of the change of teeth, when the child is six or seven, does this imagination become fully independent of the outer environment. Now, the child can turn the words of human language into worlds in his or her own mind.
This is an archetypal path – and yet every child walks this pathway differently. But by being in an environment, like Dhamma-Ban Kuman in his hut by the river, in which these capacities are allowed to mature and ripen at their own pace, the foundations are laid for the ability, later in life, to find meaning in the world and co-create the future out of an imaginative vision of what is possible.
By Jan Christopher Goeschel, Ph.D.