Thursday, September 10, 2009

Kasia's Play and Stories

While sorting through my mom’s stuff, preparatory to putting her condo on the market, I came across a box of my old matchbox cars. This immediately brought back memories of hours of car chases round the border of the front room carpet. Even after 45 years, I still remembered what each car represented – the crooked racecar driver, the target treasure on the moving truck, the ploy of hiding the getaway car in the blue carrier behind the citron, the detective in the silver shadow Rolls-Royce who always figured out each case in the end, the decoy milk truck – the whole set of complicated plotlines that kept me happily engaged for years. I was surprised to find them, having thought I had passed all my toys on to another family’s youngsters decades before when I’d left home, but this particular set had somehow survived the general purge. So, naturally the shoebox of matchbox toys went into the ‘keepers’ pile.

Where it was shortly discovered by my own 5 year old. She opened the box with a ‘Wow, cars! Can I play with them?” I of course consented, especially since they were clearly already too banged up to be considered any sort of collector’s items. What harm could she do?

Momentarily distracted with other sorting duties, it has half an hour or so before I could return to explain what each vehicle represented, how they drove around the ‘roads’ on the carpet, which flowers in the carpet represented cloverleaf interchanges, all the complicated rules it taken me years to work out. And a good thing too as it turned out.

The carpet I grew up with -- "note highway" border strips with flower "interchanges".

When I got back to Kasia, she had all the cars out of the box and lined up next to each other. “These two are sisters,” she said pointing to the two blue cars, “and this is their Mom.” It was vital, she explained to me, that the cars stay in the right position within the line, that the line move forward in unison, because otherwise the family relationships might be disrupted. In a half hour she had worked out an entire family tree of cars, which had nothing to do with highway chases, conspiracies, or shootouts.

So, is this an age-related developmental stage, or is it a gender thing? For her, every doll and stuffy – and apparently toy car – is about “mommy/baby/older sister” relationships.

Kasia’s favorite pastime is ‘playing ponies’, which consists of extensive role plays with her massive collection of horse, unicorn, and Pegasus stuffies, supplemented with a few dog stuffies, the occasional fairy or mermaid, and visits from various Barbies and Kens intruding in the land of magic from the human world. Initially, when Kasia was three or four, plotlines consisted entirely of one or other horse falling from the bed or couch onto the floor and the frantic attempts by various horse family members to rescue these “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” victims. Invariably, once rescued, these careless individuals would again immediately plummet to the exact same spot. The cycle would be repeated for hours of selfplay. Invited to join Kasia playing ponies, we would have to stick strictly to the script: any attempt by one of our characters to, say, warn horse family members to stay way from the edge of the cliff, would elicit outraged tantrums.

Only slowly over the years has this basic plotline been allowed to evolve into the current version, which is that some bad guy (monster/witch/horse trader) intrudes into the valley of horses/land of magic to steal one or more horses and put them in cages from which they must be rescued. Lately, the bad guys are surprised to discover that the horses are magical and can talk/fly. Sometimes this discovery is what motivates the bad guys to try to capture the magic horses; sometimes it is this discovery that allows the horses to escape (e.g., the horses have invisible wings and turn out to be Pegasuses that can then fly away, after pummeling the would be kidnappers).

Mary and I have resisted, without much long-term success, Kasia’s insistence that there be bad guys. Tigana had had no such need to divide the world into good guys and villains, but Kasia insists on it. Most disturbing is her apparent belief that violence is justified against bad guys simply because they are the bad guys, as defined by the very narrow perspective of her tribe. The suggestion that the bad guys are bad because they are violent, and that being violent back makes you a bad guy seems to be a challenging concept to Kasia.

[I blame the early My Little Pony movies, which featured various stereotypical witches and mean spirited villains; in contrast to more recent My Little Pony offerings (such as Minty’s Christmas) which feature intelligent, engaging adventures sans bad guys. We started horse-crazy Kasia on the current My Little Ponies episodes, which were harmless enough, then hunted down the originals for our addicted daughter, not realizing what a corrupting influence they would turn out to be. I hated those early My Little Pony episodes almost as much as Kasia loved them. Fortunately, she now seems to be outgrowing the franchise...]

So, over the last year or so I have been working on introducing more moral ambiguity into Kasia’s play world. First, some of the dolls started objecting to being cast as the bad guys in various games. This was a hoot, because 4-5 year old Kasia saw nothing unusual in a doll arguing its assigned role, and would enter long debates with various ‘actors’ about their roles, their presumed motivation, and whether they were becoming typecast. The point of the exercise was to break down the ‘beauty=good’, ‘ugly=bad guy’ stereotype – and, frankly, to delay the moment when the next pony would fall off a cliff or get captured.

More recently, I have been working on showing the bad guy’s perspective. For example, I had a long series of bedtime stories / role-plays (story time has a tendency to become scripts for playtime, and playtime ‘rules’ tend to restrict the range of options for story time) in which the princess and her pink pony are the subject of persecution by the Wicked Witch of the West. (Borrowing wholesale for bedtime stories falls under ‘fair use’, right?) It slowly emerges, however, that the Wicked Witch has been the victim of a smear campaign, and that she is in fact the aggrieved party here. Although initially intrigued by the moral ambiguity presented, Kasia was clearly disturbed by the introduction of shades of grey, and has recently asked if we could go back to the original stories where it was just the good princess vs. the Wicked Witch....

Kasia's drawing of a pony

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