Childhood Magical Thinking and the Living World of Blanket Forts


I miss the days of my own childhood magical thinking.

There was a time when I believed that when the lights went off and I fell asleep that my stuffed animals would come to life. That I couldn’t choose just one to place under my arm because if I did, the others’ feelings would be hurt. So I put them in rotation – equally cuddling them throughout the week.

A time when a cardboard box could be a convertible, spaceship, or refrigerator. A costume might have the power to turn me into the very character I imitated. And if I wrote a story, it had the power to come true as though my pencil were also a wand.

Outside, the woods could be enchanted, haunted, or a gateway to another realm. The trees listened and the animals could talk. Wagon rides transported you to the old west. Chalk drawings were treasure maps. And if you sang loud, hard, and regularly enough your life could be a musical- eventually everyone else would be singing along.

I suppose this is imagination. Creative Play. Dress up. It’s all of those, that’s true. But it’s also more. When you believe that these places, times, people that you imagine can come true that is childhood magical thinking.  

Think of the wonder and magic of Christmas and Santa Claus. The Tooth Fairy. Or the Easter Bunny. Leprechauns and pots of gold. Festive holidays. Gilded stories of legends and lore. Adults create traditions and customs based on how we celebrate holidays and historical or mythological figures. We encourage our children to believe the magic we create for them. We keep the man behind the curtain protected and suspend the truth. For kids, and anyone sharing in their childhood wonder, these are mysterious, magical, wonderful times.

As a child, my imaginative play and fantasy worlds were much likened to the bubbling excitement of these mystical holidays. Truly thinking that if you believe it, it can happen, it is. Those stuffed animals can come to life. You can be transported to another time or place. If you wish it hard enough, it can be.

I guess as an adult we would call this wishful thinking, manifestation, or optimism.

But all of these come with that other side. The side where we know reality. The side where there is doubt. Critical thinking. Judgment. To wishfully think is to recognize that many wishes don’t come true. Manifestation can fail. Optimism has an opposite.

Childhood magical thinking, on the other hand, doesn’t open itself to question. It’s pure in belief.

childhood magical thinking below blankets

Lately, my son has wanted to play under blankets. The handknit quilt that drapes over the couch; the comforter of my bed; his blankie. He giggles with pure ecstasy as he disappears beneath cloth into a cozy other world. And I wonder if he is in that place I remember being as a little girl. That place of childhood magical thinking where anything is possible.

I imagine that when he disappears beneath a blanket, he finds himself in a magical space. I love seeing him hidden in plain sight and believing on some level I now can’t see him at all.  

“Mommy, I’m hiding!” He yells from underneath.

Though I expect the announcement every time, it still makes me smile. His inability to understand that by covering himself in my sight and then also announcing he’s disappeared make his absence no mystery. For him though, he’s just performed the best trick ever.

Houdini in the disappearing cupboard. Harry Potter in the invisible cloak. My son is living out the childhood wonder of magic.

Recently, as we found ourselves playing this blanket game, he invited me under the quilt. Instead of having me sit outside his shroud pretending not to see him, he asked for me to share the stuffy, dark space beneath the blanket.

Come in Mommy! Let’s hide!

I crawled under wanting to be transported to another land as I had been once so very long ago. As I did, he erupted into laughter. I dragged the blanket until it covered us both entirely and sat cross-legged facing him.

There we were, knitted yarn piled on top of our heads, pushing our hair across our foreheads, in front of our eyes. We looked at each other through loose and staticked strands, grinning. He looked sideways and told me to, “shhh” and then listened as though he were expecting a giant to come stomping through the house looking for us.

Anything was possible, of course within my son’s unbound imagination. I wanted to help any of his ideas come true, and grant him adventure and exploration. And, of course, the freedom to have these years of magic where anything is possible.

“I have an idea,” I whispered.

Whispering, too, sends him into squeals. My son’s curiosity and delight: What is she about to say? Something exciting! He’s already predicted hilarity and fun. I’ve explained nothing, and already he’s captivated.

We should build a fort.

childhood magical thnking building forts

This produced a visible change as his eyebrows raised to his hairline, his blue eyes widened, and his mouth turned into an elongated oh. He clambers out of the blanket piled on top of us, his staticky hair rising in the fresh air. We’ve made forts two times before and the memory has stayed. He raced to the hallway closet, dragging out all the other blankets and holding them up to me.

“This one?” he asked, looking to me, his architect.

I took the blankets he offered and then he went in search of two more- small ones. Tiny quilts once embroidered for him by his grandmother and great-grandmother while I was pregnant with him. He found the small quilts and smiled.

He ran his tiny fingers over the hand-stitched A B Cs with awe. How did the letters get on there? Such simple things that make little minds wonder. Nearly everything can be produced by magic or miracle.

Back in the living room, I dragged the rocking chair and the office chair so that the backs of them were against the arms of the huge leather chair. I began to drape the blankets over the triad of chairs, pulling a little here and a little there so the roof of our newly built fort didn’t cave in. My son watched with wonder in his eyes as if I were constructing him a castle or a wardrobe with the power to conjure Narnia. While he doesn’t know Narnia, he does know of castles. I hoped that this was what he believed we were building together.

Maybe we are. Maybe that is the whole point. He brings me back to the place where anything is possible.

With the fort not even completely built, the blankets not yet perfectly positioned, he eagerly climbed onto the ottoman and then slid into the seat of the leather chair, completely encaved. The roundness of his tiny head popped up slightly into the roof of our structure. I scratched it through layers of blankets and he giggled.

“All done?” he called.

“Almost,” I told him and tugged the blankets a little more. Then, I ducked my face in the opening and peered in at him.

Come in! Let’s hide from the firetruck.

Quickly, our fort became the safety zone for some firetruck we were trying to avoid. Then, he pushed me aside and told me to wait.

I need to get something.

He returned with his entire bin of play food. His magnatiles. Some hand-selected cars. A puzzle. His fort became a playroom. Or a tree house, perhaps. Maybe a restaurant.

childhood magical thinking about things

Whatever he wanted it to be, I wanted it to be just that.

He brought so many somethings into the fort that there was hardly room left for us to sit anymore, but the fort was the only place he was interested in that evening. Playing beneath the canopy of blankets was the only thing he wanted to do and he wanted me there. Watching. Witnessing.

Rarely am I asked to do anything when he plays but watch. If I try to place a car on his track or add a puzzle piece, he reminds me he just wants me to watch. I abide. Because while he looks upon everything with the wonder of discovering it for the first time, my wonder is in discovering him.  

I try to re-engage with the world through his eyes, as though I, too, were seeing it, feeling it, exploring it for the first time. I remember my own childhood magical thinking where life could be full of adventure, and full of possibility.

I want to let him stay in this time and place as long as possible.



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