Star Wars vs NASA: The importance of the universe of a child’s imagination — First published in the Washington Post

This essay first appeared in The Washington Post.

Last month, my family embarked on a day trip to Kennedy Space Center. Since our house is currently experiencing somewhat of a Star Wars craze, our trip coincided with a week filled with Lightsaber battles, Starship Lego creations, and Crayola pictures depicting life from alternate universes. While my oldest child had no trouble differentiating the realities of our day trip to the Space Center from the imaginary world in the Star Wars movies, the task wasn’t easy for my younger children. After we watched the IMAX movie, Journey to Space, I did my best to explain the differences, but my efforts were lost on them. They stared at me with wide eyes glaring, shoulders back, and their jaws dropped low. I bought them Popsicles and decided not to push the issue.

Over the next two weeks, the kids asked many questions, trying to understand how space and interplanetary travel were real, but that Star Wars, Luke, and Darth Vader were only pretend characters in a movie. I think they now understand as much as they are developmentally able to process. And after our first awkward conversations, the kids seem fine with my short explanations.

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I really struggled to find the right words to help my kids differentiate fact from fiction during this process. This difficulty has led me to the following question: What is the role of imagination in child development, and how can I best help my children navigate between the pretend worlds that make up most of their imaginative lives, and the real worlds they must traverse each day?

Discussing the issue of imagination with the Wall Street Journal, Paul Harris, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education explained “there is evidence that imagination and role play appears to have a key role in helping children take someone else’s perspective.” These experiences give them practical experience to learn how to process social cues. Playing pretend, it turns out, helps children navigate through reality as well.

The Star Wars series is not unique in that within its story, parents have an opportunity to teach children valuable lessons. For our family, we’ve enjoyed the depth of discussions that seem to take the story line past the actual plot and towards conversations centered at the deeper issues contained in the films. These conversations have made their way past the imaginary world depicted in the movie and into our day to day lives. For example, some of Yoda’s words are fantastic to help kids visualize smart choices. My current favorite is an old Yoda quote from The Empire Strikes Back. In that movie, Yoda smartly reminds young Luke, “You will know the good from the bad when you are calm.”

The conversations in our home still often center around imaginary Starships and follow almost instantaneously by dreams of one day traveling to the moon. I’ve assisted in building my fair share of Lego battle fleets and I am getting quite good at drawing Darth Vader. I still can’t fully explain the nuanced differences between space travel in Star Wars and the awesomeness of NASA rockets. But I can help my children by asking questions and helping them seek out the truth themselves. In the great words of Yoda, “Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.”

Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. She is also a lifestyle photographer and a mom. Follow Stacey on Twitter @sgsteinberg or view Stacey’s photography on Facebook.