Our children had some friends over this past weekend, and they decided to embark on an outdoor adventure. The negotiations, as I overheard them, went something like this:
“Let’s pretend we’re on the Oregon Trail!”
“And also, some of us could be runaway slaves.”
“Okay, that works; that was around the same time.”
“I’ll be the Quaker person helping the slaves escape.”
“And also, we’re orphans….”
If they hadn’t been so insistent on historical accuracy, I’m pretty sure they would’ve added a couple of Jews fleeing the Nazis for good measure – they’ve played that before. (Jewish orphans, of course.)
I’m not entirely sure why children love playing at being orphans in perilous situations, but I know the attraction extends far beyond my own children. In fact, I remember loving a good orphan make-believe session myself; for at least a year of my own childhood, my friends and I pretended to be inmates in Miss Hannigan’s orphanage from the musical Annie.
Part of the appeal must lie in the sense of independence and courage that comes from imagining facing dangers alone, without the safety net of parents. In this way, games of “orphans in trouble” actually prepare our children for the reality of the world beyond childhood. The world can be a big and scary place, after all, and regardless of whether our parents are still alive, most of us have the sense at one time or another that we are on our own.