Understanding Play — And Our Kids — Means Thinking Like A Child

I can’t tell you what it is that made Brownie, of all my stuffed animals, the one who became real. I do remember the moment we met. I was 4; back then, Brownie’s fur was plush and lovely, but she bore the same wonderfully unimpressed expression she wears today. I’d never been much of a baby-doll girl, more prone to toting around armfuls of ragged raccoons and bunnies with T-shirts (Hunny Bunny!) than trying to bottle feed a plastic infant or wrestle an off-the-shoulder tube dress onto Barbie. But when Brownie joined my menagerie, she became my actual baby. Other stuffed animals could be jammed ignominiously into backpacks, and I’d feel a twinge of guilt, but Brownie would starve if I didn’t feed her! Brownie would be cold and lonely if left overnight in the car! Brownie’s feelings would be hurt if we didn’t bring her to the beach, to the grocery store, to the town pool! (Motherhood is exhausting.) Leaving Brownie behind as I boarded the bus to kindergarten left an ache in my throat. Not just because we’d miss each other (so much!) until the bus delivered me back home, but because Brownie had by then become an intrinsic part of my everyday. Not a “toy” to be “played” with, not an activity to choose, but a companion to care for and to cart about through the playful adventures and the quotidien, equally.

Decades of being snuggled and loved and ferried about everywhere have thoroughly dulled Brownie’s shine and matted her plush and redistributed her stuffing so there are weirdly thin spots along with some lumps and bumps (same). A good many years (five, six? Should I admit to more?) of being “fed” real food also took their toll, as did the many harrowing moments we spent in laundromats, me watching her spin round as her little snout became clean again (Brownie was remarkably adept at holding her breath!), but this little bear, looking grumpier than ever, is still with me. She’s well-traveled, having chaperoned me on planes across the country every six months to visit my dad, planes to college, planes to other continents as we did some post-college exploring and poor decision-making, and yes, the plane that brought me to New York City, where I eventually met a Jersey boy, had a baby girl, and gave Brownie a new little person to worship her.

She came to play.

And so it goes: At some mysterious point, we children become “adults,” who mostly don’t carry on complicated relationships with inanimate objects. And then some of us have our own children, and the playing and the creating begins all over again, albeit from a different point of view. We’re through the looking glass, seeing the world we used to inhabit, only warped, different: we have experience with the way things “are” now, and with responsibility, and what other people think. Romper’s Make.Believe Issue celebrates this magic: the interstitial universe of possibility our children see and create daily, encompassing everything we term “play.” This includes but is not limited to floors that get covered with glitter and small plastic (invisible) booby traps, intellectual leaps, fledgling friendships with toys, dreams and fantasies that turn into ambitions, and the alchemy that occurs when young imaginations discover their power to shift and even create reality — which we hope they never lose. Especially in a moment when so many children are fighting for their basic survival thanks to choices made by adults, this capacity to build a different reality is worth nurturing.

Glimpse back into what things look like from the point of view of someone so relatively new to this planet, and yet so incredibly rich in wonder, ingenuity, resourcefulness, intelligence.

Anchoring this issue is a wild ride with The Busbys of TLC’s OutDaughtered. Danielle Busby will be the first to tell you that giving birth to quintuplets after a singleton was wild (“Give me strength, Lord. I’m super exhausted.”), but parenting on screen is truly an act of creation. And as Margaret Wheeler Johnson’s profile of Danielle, Adam, and their six daughters shows, playing out their lives in front of a million people each week has been a step into the unknown, as they quite literally sketched out what their lives would look like. “Just think about your kids now being able to go back and watch your entire life unfold. And how cool of an experience that would be,” Adam says.

Adam, Danielle, the quints, and Blayke have a story to tell.

In our photo essay combining professional portraits and photos taken by the subjects themselves, you’ll meet six children who have, with their parents’ permission, generously invited us into their own homes and imaginations, sharing with us a glimpse into the worlds they create as they play. From the animal hospital that 6-year-old twins Logan and Jeremy make out of a perennial best toy of all time (a cardboard box), to the scenarios a magical 4-year-old named Birdie creates in the woods that are her backyard, we invite you to revel in this glimpse back into what things look like from the point of view of someone so relatively new to this planet, and yet so incredibly rich in wonder, ingenuity, resourcefulness, intelligence.

Sloane has strong ideas about how her creations should look.

Sometimes as a parent, it can feel like making the magic we want for our kids is an impossible task, because of all the time and money involved. (Who ever has nearly enough of either?!) In this edition of Expense Report, our series that offers a glimpse into the spending, scrimping, and wishing that defines parenthood, Insta fav Susie Allison of The Busy Toddler shows us what a $69 birthday party (theme: Make Believe!) looks like. Sneak peek: pure joy.

You know what is not going to be the death of all magic and creativity in your kid’s life? Screen time. There, I said it. But even though my daughter seems to have turned out fine, despite all those hours of Dora, Caillou, and our share of iPhones at restaurant tables, don’t take my word for it. Instead, feel reassured by the sage and profoundly funny wisdom of our resident shouty advice giver, Jenny True. And then head over to our content package, Play Book, to read Hillary Savoie’s fantastically well-researched antidote to all those “screen time is destroying an entire generation” think pieces that have sunk the sense of possibility we used to have when handing a kid a new toy.

Recently, Brownie’s little plastic nose popped off.

Also in Play Book, Romper lifestyle editor Samantha Darby asked a bunch of influencer’s kids what they suggest doing on a rainy day (other than screen time, which again, is always a valid option), and got 33 great ideas for the next time you’re stuck inside with a restless small relation or two. We also have a solid answer for your worrying concern that you might not be fun enough now that you’re the one who has to remember grocery lists and tell everyone to pick up their toys and put them in the bin that is specifically right there for this purpose, come on people!, and the one quiz you didn’t realize you were missing from your life, in which our deputy editor Janet Manley will help you figure out your toddler’s play style and assure you that, yes, that weird thing your kid does is totally normal.

Molly Yeh shows us Bernie's nursery, in the house where her husband, a fifth-generation beet farmer, grew up.

In Contain Yourself, our voyeuristic look inside uber organized spaces belonging to fascinating people, Senior Lifestyle Editor Anne Vorrasi speaks to former musician and now star of The Food Network’s Girl Meets Farm Molly Yeh for a tour through her to-die-for nursery. With photos taken on location at Molly’s home just outside of East Grand Forks in Minnesota, the cookbook author explains why the wood paneling isn’t going anywhere and how she keeps baby Bernie’s room looking pristine with some life-changing advice from her sister-in-law and, well, Marie Kondo. And in this edition of This Book Belongs To, our ongoing series that celebrates the children’s books we love to read to our kids (and the ones we loved to have read to us), Virginia Duan confesses that she’d actually gotten totally fed up with trying to get her picky child to sight-read until, at last, they discovered a certain elephant and a certain piggie.

Finally, and by no means at least, plan to spend a little time exploring this gorgeous edition of our shopping guide A La Cart. Using the letters in STEAM as her guide, Anne has curated a truly spectacular list of 67 (!) of the best, most inspiring and imagination-firing toys, kid-friendly robots, art kits, and more on the market. They’re “educational,” yes, but they’re also a heck of a lot of fun, and we even found some kids to tell you so. We are so thrilled to imagine what kind of magic your kids will make, or plans they’ll be inspired to dream up.

A recent selfie of Brownie, my little friend Beatrice, 7, and me, taken by Beatrice.

As for me, well, I’m all grown up (so they tell me), but I would be devastated if anything happened to Brownie, who has for more than a decade lived in my daughter’s bedroom, taking her rightful spot in the middle of Isabella’s bed. Recently, Brownie’s little plastic nose popped off, and I can’t really explain or describe the wretched, yawning maw of existential horror this evoked in me. Hot glue was eventually procured, and the world was righted, sort of.

—April Daniels Hussar, Managing Editor

To help make the world a little bit more right for all our kids, you can support the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) or Save The Children’s U.S. Programs Support Fund.