When I was little, my go-to game was always make-believe. In the wake of Harry Potter’s colossal popularity, my best friend and I would make believe that we were at a school for wizards. Of course, it wasn’t enough that we just imagined being wizards-in-training, we would take hours to set up our own classrooms for this wizarding school. We’d gather our toys and various crafts from around the house, set up pillows as seats and wear blankets as cloaks. Most often, our play date would end before we even had a chance to finish designing the classes, but sometimes we’d manage to enact our magical education. Potions class would have us tossing toy frogs, toothpaste, and cat hair in the bathtub to make an elixir for controlling the weather. In divination, we taught each other how to read the future from a randomly scattered deck of Pokémon cards. It was never enough to just imagine we were at a wizard school – we had to create rules, use props and costumes to strengthen our belief in the world we had built.
I still build my own worlds, but instead of gathering solid objects to make them more believable, I gather details and facts to create imaginary planets and write stories about them.
As a kid, the toys and the blankets and the pillows were real, they were tangible and I believed in them because I could understand them in a certain way. Now the things I use as my toys and blankets and pillows can’t be held, but they are still believable because of how I understand them. My new “toys” are facts about how the world works and how the pieces of the universe fit together to create the place in which we live. To build my own imaginary worlds, I take details from the real world and rearrange them so they seem more magical.
The details can be how wolves affect the flow of rivers or how the moon stabilizes the seasons on Earth; these elements fit together because of what we know through science.
We can observe what we know of the universe – observe how planets are affected by gravity and what role each animal plays in their ecosystem – and come up with rules for how everything interacts with everything else. This observation and cataloging of rules is the essence of science and the building of imaginary worlds simply borrows the rules and turns them into a game.
It’s all still about making believe. I like to imagine wild and magical things and I like to imagine that they’re real. By looking at how the world works today, I can imagine things moved around and changed and come up with something that is astonishing but believable because it fits laws such as gravity and thermodynamics.
To justify imagining a wizard into my world, I think of what their magic is. Does a wizard that controls fire simply have the ability to excite particles around themselves, creating heat and fire? Do they hold technology that nobody else understands? Or is all of their “magic” just illusion and sleight of hand? By answering these questions, you can begin to see what kind of environment a wizard would fit into. Though there are no wizards on Earth, we can use the rules of our planet to believe they could exist.
Worldbuilding is all about asking questions. It is an art of constructing a country or a planet or a universe by asking questions of our own world and piecing the answers together to make something new. In doing that, we also learn more about the world in which we live.
In a classroom, allowing imaginative play through worldbuilding can reinforce the lessons of science and bring an opportunity for personalized learning to every child.
Jake Turner is an actor, educator and student in the Performing Arts Advocacy capstone class at Portland State University.