This is the first part of a series on playing tabletop roleplaying games with children. We'll cover the why's and how's, followed by specific instructions on making and running an OSR campaign for kids between the ages of 7 and 12.
Gaming with children is a unique experience for many reasons. Kids are naturally creative, their minds are unrestricted by the hard boundaries of adult rationality, and pretending imaginary worlds comes naturally to them. At the same time, as an adult, any interaction you have with a child will also be instructive. They see into you, and imitate you. It's not that they think 'I want to be like this person' and purposefully add your actions to their repertoire. It's that they naturally absorb the mannerisms and ways of being of those around them because it's how they learn.
Children are impressionable. This is fact. They thirst to learn about the world and everything they do, from playing pretend house, to knocking over lamps, to burning an egg on the stove before you even wake up, is about learning how to be in this world. They're practicing being adults.
This is important to bear in mind when we give them media to take in. The media becomes their reality. If this media is violent, neurotic, and non-nonsensical, they will absorb this into themselves. Whatever they see is what they learn about the world, and they integrate it in a deep way that becomes the shadow-self or unconscious, that they will carry for the rest of their lives.
That is why we, as adults and caretakers, have the responsibility of screening the types of media children are allowed to consume. They don't have this ability themselves. They absorb everything they come into contact with and make it part of themselves, like sponges. If we show them a world crazed and dangerous, they come to believe, unconsciously, that the world is crazed and dangerous. If we show them a world that is gentle, and loving, and full of magic, they integrate this. Likely, through our own incompetence and oversight, they will integrate something in between.
The hope is that we give them a foundation which will raise them above the haphazard rearing we were given, so that they can carry the next generation in a better direction, and make the world better too.
It is not our jobs to teach children under the age of 12 about the dangers of the world. Children do not need to know about cruelty, irony, sarcasm, war, bitterness, and loss. These are lessons to be learned later. At a young age they are busy integrating the foundation for their psyche. They need stories that will uplift them, give them hope, give them something to model their own behavior on, and allow them to see beauty and wonder in the world.
Fairy tales, animal fables, and folklore are appropriate stories for children. They have action and adventure, but presented a way which is whole. That is to say that the verisimilitude of these self-contained stories shows a world which is self-contained, a mirror of our own, and can teach us what the world is like with the use of archetypes. These archetypes, like the hero who leaves home, the beautiful princess, the wicked step-mother, the wily fox, the ugly duckling, are fragments of the self we carry within, and when children learn these stories it helps them to unfold a part of themselves, together, with a caring adult, into thoughtful, caring adults themselves.
Some carefully selected movies and TV shows can be appropriate in certain settings (we allow our oldest daughter to watch most Miyazaki films, and Avatar the Last Airbender, but only together with us as a family). We don't allow unrestricted, unmonitored screen time, and as a family use screens as little as we can get away with. Obviously, I'm writing this on a computer. There are simply some tasks that computers are better at. Raising your kids for you is not one of them.
Playing pretend allows children to act out the things they've witness. It gives them an opportunity to comprehend it by integrating it into their bodies. By acting out daily life in the form of pretend games, alone or with other children, they make the lessons complete and real. All pretend games children play have this instructive quality. It is their way of making sense of the world.
Children who witness violent or confusing media without an adult present to turn to for stability frequently get stuck reliving these images, as their minds, as-of-yet unable to comprehend what they've seen, cannot integrate it. They have no basis for understanding such things, as they're still in the process of developing their worldview. Thus these confusing imagine become part of their worldview, and they spend the rest of their lives trying to understand it. Don't believe me? Go talk to anyone under the age of forty and ask what their childhood was like, and how it affected them. Go ahead, I'll wait.
On the same token, as important as it is for children to play pretend and to receive affirm, instructive stories from adults, I think it's inappropriate for adults to 'get down on their level' and play pretend games with children. Adults do not have the free imagination to do this successfully, the way children do. We are stuck in our ways, inflexible, and self-conscious, unable to truly let go and get lost in another world. Children can't help but do this. They don't need verisimilitude. They enter and live in imaginary worlds like a fish does to water.
As adults we've already developed our inner-world, thus when we play pretend we are merely reenacting what is already integrated into us, rather than integrating something new. It is impossible for us to truly 'get down' on their level, because we are as different by nature as avocados and potatoes. We may have the same general shape, but inside and out we are not the same.
There are, however, some games which are appropriate to play with children. Adults who play pretend games with children force the children into their own adult rules-bound world. Gentle rough-hosing, peekaboo, and hide-and-seek are all games which have rules and put all players on the same footing, no matter age, ability, or cognitive preparedness. Board game, as long as they aren't the overly complicated multi-hour affair, can meet this criteria.
Likewise, I've found that Dungeons & Dragons is another type of game which can be successfully be played between adults and children. It allows the adult to enter the role of rule-holder; the Dungeon Master, who creates a sensible world governed by it's own internal logic, which is what the integrated adult mind is good at. Then, the child/children can enter as players, free to make their own choices and dream up solutions to problems, which is what young minds are good at. We can enter the game playing to each other's strengths, and imagine a world together which is creative and new, without impinging on each other's abilities. The great thing about D&D is that, unlike adults, children generally need no instruction on how to play.
When we play D&D with kids it's important that we give them scenarios that they are ready for. Overt violence, dismemberment, human sacrifice, cruelty, and the downfall of mankind are not scenarios for children. Violence can play a role if it is presented as mystical transformation, or as humans overcoming uncertainty, or as the establishment of an ordered world over a chaotic one. We don't need to reenact realistic medieval society, we need to give symbols and archetypes which can be integrated easily.
Thus D&D games based in a fairy tale-type setting are perfect. They come ready-made. We can simply drop in fairy-tale monsters, happenings, and magic and go from there.
The next post in this series will be about this.