We often talk about seeing “through the eyes of a child,” but if we really think back to how we saw the world when we were kids, it feels awfully a lot like the way we “see” things now. As children, the stakes felt as high, the triumphs as monumental, and the fears certainly just as real. If anything, we remember the imaginings of our childhood being more potent — the veil between what we imagined and what was “real” being so much flimsier.
Observe, in contrast, the packaging of any old toy, and you will see an adult idea about what a child at play looks like. You will see beliefs that we hold as adults about what a child is or is not capable of, because play is elusive, hard to catch, hard to understand. So we stage it. And the images speak to our biases about children — we are all guilty of patronizing our kids. Often, we have underestimated their creative powers, and underestimated their ability simply to remember: “Even infants are aware of the past, as many remarkable experiments have shown,” wrote Slate’s Nicholas Day in 2014. And when we participate in what Day terms “highly elaborative” remembrance with our children, we actually build more memories. Likewise, honoring those seemingly small-potatoes games they love to engage in bonds us to them, and builds their characters. “Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child,” wrote Kenneth R. Ginsburg and colleagues in a 2007 article in Pediatrics.
When we pay attention to the interior worlds of children, we see just how complex and brilliant they are.
As children are learning about the “real” world so, too, are they actually creating it. The broad umbrella under which all manner of “play” falls conceals a rich emotional and neurological experience. Our children’s brains are transforming in that sandbox, leaping off the couch, while engrossed in Duplos.
Remember the blanket fort that protected you from the robbers? The lava floor that burned your feet? The gremlins that lurked in your backyard, the arguments your dolls had with each other, the taste of imaginary tea and cake? You knew it wasn’t real but it also was. And when we pay attention to the interior worlds of children, we see just how complex and brilliant they are. To a child, beauty can look like a monster, a princess, a crisis, a solution, a form of magic.
This is shown incredibly by the photographers who captured six creators in their element, and by photos the kids took of the worlds they themselves had created, with thanks to their parents for handling file transfers and allowing their offspring to focus on the moment — the place we all wish we could get back to.
Where you see poster board and cheap synthetic fabric, she sees a crown that 'needs more jewels,' and 'proper princess dresses,' as opposed to 'pretend princess dresses.' Asked to elaborate on what makes for a proper princess dress, she explains that you know it when you see it.
Talking to Sloane by FaceTime, you get a profound sense of her point-of-view. You can’t not; she is holding the phone to her face and announcing “It’s just you and me now,” while taking you off on a tour of the house (“Want to see my baby sister?!”) and leaving her mom and dad behind. Her home, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is papered in various artworks — of her family, of her friends, of a man being chased by a bee that, it must be said, captures the very essence of running in terror from a malicious bee. Her art materials are contained in a neat drawer system, and she fetches them with the purpose of a Blick employee fulfilling an important order.
Sloane, who loves to draw and craft and furnish her dolls with paper headboards, has strong ideas about how a finished piece should look. Where you see poster board and cheap synthetic fabric, she sees a crown that “needs more jewels,” and “proper princess dresses,” as opposed to “pretend princess dresses.” Asked to elaborate on what makes for a proper princess dress, she explains that you know it when you see it.
The summer camp Sloane is attending has an array of activities, her favorite being freeze tag, in which the tagger, she explains, is granted the super power of immobilizing other children through a zap of the hand. They are magical summer days, if not the one on which a camp counselor “ruined!” her artwork by disregarding Sloane’s careful instructions and offering “too much help,” per Sloane’s mother Lauren.
At the outset of hearing about Romper’s photographic essay, Sloane said she was absolutely in, then requested a pair of “special scissors,” her mind already ticking over to the potential creations, a tiny Béatrice Coron at work. She made a series of kites, as she is wont to do, then tore about the yard trying to get them to fly (“she’s also very into butterfly fairies right now” her mom explained). Some of the bows came off, so she resolved to start again tomorrow, at which point she could also add some jewels to her paper crown — you know, take care of business. Faced with a world of paper, glue, and possibility, Sloane always has a lot of work to do.
Sloane's Camera Roll
Baby, Sloane’s lovey, is fine with being on Sloane TV. A girl, Lulee (friends with Leela and Moolee) wears a bow inside a house after a day of adventuring; a doll rests on her comfortable new Sloane-fabricated headboard and Sloane-fabricated pillow; and a kite is ready to take flight.
The swimming pool is for kids wearing bathing suits. And for painting. And for mixing ingredients to make cake.
Somewhere in Washington, you’ll find (or you won’t) the magical 4-year-old Birdie living off-grid with her mama, papa, 2-year-old brother Everwild, elderly dog Maisy, 29 chickens, 3 guinea fowl, 32 birds, and Edgar, a porcupine who mostly lives in the woods, but checks in every few months. For Birdie and Everwild, nature is literally their playground in a way that self-proclaimed outdoor enthusiasts prone to claim “nature is my playground” could only dream of, and Birdie is the tiny guru we all need.
“Birdie spends most of her time outdoors where everything is a plaything,” says her mom Megan. “Sticks and flowers become men and ladies, leaves become wings. When she plays with toys, there's generally a cast of characters, both human and animal... there's usually at least one character in peril, someone in need of rescue.” And Birdie knows just the thing to make them feel better: Magic. In fact, “she's certain there's a unicorn living in our woods and she ‘just needs to find it and grab it by the tail and ride it,’” Megan explains. Above, Birdie escorts her imaginary friend Maple “somewhere so she can get better” by pony — its name changes regularly, Megan tells us via email, but today he is Anno.
Birdie and Everwild have the typical sibling dynamic: Sometimes they play together — “I like painting our faces. I like sharing,” says Birdie — but sometimes she needs her space and doesn’t want her little brother to mess up what she’s doing or take what she’s playing with. Above is a versatile toy that holds Everwild’s attention while Birdie focuses on touching up his face. "The swimming pool is for kids wearing bathing suits. And for painting. And for mixing ingredients to make cake," Birdie explains.
Birdie gravitates towards music as much as she does dolls and leaves. A natural composer, she enjoys getting dressed up and putting on concerts for her family. She’ll pick up one of the various instruments lying around the house (drums, guitars, a keyboard, a kazoo) and create a song on the spot, usually about animals. “They’re very stream-of-thought,” describes Megan.
And like every child, Birdie is not immune to the lure of a cardboard box. While you see a utilitarian tool best used to ship or store things, a child like Birdie sees… everything. “A hat, a tunnel, a boat, a spaceship, a cave,” lists Megan. For her kids, a cardboard box wins every time.
Birdie's Camera Roll
Breakfast for a chipmunk who has been eating from their raspberry bush (Birdie wanted to send it a clear message: “Eat this, not our raspberries!”); a doll who is “just resting. Her leg is hurt and her foot hurt.” (The pink car is “a car for Legos. But actually my Legos don't fit.") Next is "a house I made for Maple. I built it for her." (Remember, Maple is Birdie’s imaginary friend.) And last, the preening chickens are just a handful of dozens on their property. “The mommy chicken is just hanging out with her babies in the shade. It's a thimbleberry tree.”
[His] favorite part of the job is getting to 'save bunnies and people and monkeys on trees.'
Some children have a knack for filling your camera roll with 35 photos of their elbow, an image that takes on the weight of a portent when captured so obsessively in bursts on your phone. Ferris, 3, isn’t that child. His photos are arresting for their clear and profound focal points — a race car about to run over the chocks, post tire change; a view through a sunroof to an orb that seems to be chasing him like a kite; a view through a woodblock archway that communicates a sense of inside/outside; of an artist’s interior, even at 3.
Watching Ferris also gives a sense of the complex thought process going on inside: he is absorbed by Flow, beeping as a dump truck “backs up” then tips its tray. Where you see empty plastic toys, Ferris sees a minor emergency on a highway that exists only in his mind. The people down on the ground are saying “they need help,” he explains, and so it is Ferris’ helicopter to the rescue.
When he isn’t exploring the outdoors, Ferris enjoys spending time creating in “Ferris’ room,” for obvious reasons: “It’s my favorite.” There, you can find friezes of Lego people going about their lives under the watchful eye of their preschool-aged creator, stationed at cash registers or waiting in their cars for a traffic light to change so they can proceed. He understands their motives and thoughts, watching over the scene like a benevolent major, there in a pinch whenever there is an emergency or a hole needs to be dug (Ferris’ people spend a lot of time digging).
Ferris also takes being a fireman seriously, and his favorite part of the job is getting to “save bunnies and people and monkeys on trees.” He is able to perform his duties while also enjoying a lollipop (favorite flavor: bubblegum). Hey, it’s his world.
Ferris' Camera Roll
A selfie of the artist himself; a Lego man waiting for something to happen in his town; Ferris’ friend, the T-rex; and some friends hide out at Ferris’ level in his favorite place of all, his bedroom.
What do you like to cook? Carrots.
What do you like to cook for mommy? Egg.
Can I get some dinner? Yes, bacon.
Joey, how much is it? Donuts.
Perhaps the child above would look more familiar to you if she were sporting Princess Leia side buns, an Adidas-style tracksuit with chain necklace, or had a faux bloody nose and waffles in each hand. When photographer Laura Izumikawa began staging her baby in costumes and sharing them on Instagram, the world was giddy with joy and also completely awestruck by Mom’s fearlessness — do you know any other parent who is daring enough to touch, let alone dress up, their napping baby? *Shudder*
But little Joey is growing up, and it’s been over a year since Laura’s last #naptimewithjoey (wearing a leopard print dress and red cat-eye glasses in the style of Ali Wong). Sure, fans might miss seeing Joey in costumes that her mom picked out, but they get to watch little Joey, now 3, choose her own characters; to be a kid and play; to layer clothes and accessories from her costume collection, give her toys personalities, and just pretend.
Joey, who is bilingual and speaks both English and Korean, is a big Disney fan, says Laura, especially of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. “Lately she loves Mulan. I'd like to think it's because she identifies with her.” Joey has a few Disney costumes in her closet (Belle, Ariel, Rapunzel), and in the photo above, she sits atop her pony, Heenan, wearing her “yewwow” Belle dress and Mulan chestplate — she’s ready to charge through life.
Laura: "Hey Joey, what does Heenan like to do?"
"What does she like to eat?"
“Bunnies! And carrots!”
“She tends to be focused on one sort of play for a long time until something else inspires her,” sums up Laura when describing what playtime looks like. Hence, puzzles and other games that require Joey to put things together are usually big hits.
Food and cooking is a common theme, and Joey is inspired by real-life experiences. “She loves ‘cooking’ for people and watching them ‘taste’ her food,” Laura says. “She saw a sushi chef serve us sushi for dinner omakase-style, and she started playing that way with her sushi toys recently.” Here Joey is feeding her dragon, Cheengo (which translates to ‘friend’ in Korean). Cheengo likes to eat eggs and crackers, according to Joey. Soon she’ll likely start preparing elaborate meals for her little sister Casey, who is currently 7 months, but it’ll come at a price.
What do you like to cook?
What do you like to cook for mommy?
Can I get some dinner?
Joey, how much is it?
Joey's Camera Roll
Here’s a selfie Joey took with Cheengo. The wooden puzzles, shaped like little people, have names: Cookie, Pink, Ee-da, and five of them are Ah-juh-shee (which loosely translates to middle-aged man in Korean).
Logan and Jeremy, 6
Some were injured and some were fever. And some were injured AND fever. And some were bruised and some were blood dripping.
Six-year-old fraternal twins Logan (left) and Jeremy are, according to their mom Megan, “super creative kids who do their own thing.” She shared some thoughts with Romper via email after hearing that we were looking for kid subjects: “As I'm typing this they both ran upstairs to put on full tulle princess dresses because we need to run to the store, and they want to 'look fancy.’ This morning they turned the couch into an airplane and took a trip to... a waterpark I think? It was hard to follow.”
Jeremy says he prefers to dress up like his favorite superhero, Flash, while Logan is keen on dressing as Prince Charming. “I like the beautiful gems in the crown and I like the cape,” he explains.
The boys also love to bake — “Look at my apron! It says Logan!” Logan entreated this editor during a particularly lively FaceTime interview with both twins — and play elaborate games with the help of their “stuffed friends,” copious art supplies, and various household objects that they transform into the ingredients in their make believe.
“Today I did painting. And I created a rocket ship,” Logan told me of his busy day. He also “played with marbles … did crafting … played with stuffed friends and played host-ipal” (which is a much better way of saying hospital). “I wasn’t injured; I was a doctor,” he reassured Romper. As for the stuffed friends: “Some were injured and some were fever. And some were injured AND fever. And some were bruised and some were blood dripping.”
The cure for such ailments?
“I gave them Band-Aids, and for the ones that were fevered I checked their temperature. And the ones that were injured… what does injured mean?” (His mom supplied, “Hurt.”)
“And the ones that were hurt I gave them Band-Aids. The fever and the injured ones had to sleep in bed.”
What’s so interesting about Flash, you may wonder? Jeremy explains, “His superpower is (super fast running motions and sounds)!”
As for his day: “Today I played Aladdin and I played hospital. I made a magic carpet. I went to Egypt.”
Logan and Jeremy's Camera Roll
Logan contemplates his “matching cards” whilst wearing his slippers; the boys’ animal hospital and a few patients; a snack cart (“So the people on the plane can have food. The food giver, Logan, passes out the snacks to everyone on the plane.”), a close-up of the “doors of the animal hospital.”
Sloane photographed by Allie Wynands Photography
Birdie photographed by Becca Jean Photography
Ferris photographed by Grant Puckett
Joey photographed by Grant Puckett
Jeremy and Logan photographed by Michelle Fonseca Photography
All other photos courtesy of the families.