On Winnie-the-Pooh's 92nd Birthday, a Reminder to Take Child's Play Seriously

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Winnie the Pooh, an illustration.
Winnie the Pooh, an illustration. Credit: AP

On February 13, 1924, a poem called “Teddy Bear,” by A.A. Milne, was published in Punch, the British magazine of humor. In it, Winnie-the-Pooh did not yet appear under his famous stage name but as “Edward.” That was the name that Christopher Robin, Milne’s young son, gave his teddy, from which, we’re told, he was never separated, and which he took with him everywhere.

One of Christopher Robin Milne’s favorite places was the zoo, and he and his father used to visit one particular, real, bear there, named “Winnipeg.” Little Christopher Robin loved Winnipeg so much that ultimately Edward Bear received a new name: “Winnie-the-Pooh.”

When thinking about Pooh Bear, most people conjure up Disney’s animated yellow bear. Others, who were raised on the original Winnie-the-Pooh books and “The House at Pooh Corner,” remember the original illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. Few remember that it all began with the real teddy bear of a real little boy.

“Winnie-the-Pooh” is not a story about talking animals but about a boy and his toys. The bear is a dummy because his head is filled with sponge, and the tail of Eeyore the donkey is attached to him with a thumb tack. This is a story about the children’s room and the family living room, which in a twinkling are transformed into the “hundred acre wood,” which is very similar to the forest where little Christopher Robin strolled with his nanny in the morning, but is now ruled by the special logic of play.

One of Ernest H. Shepard’s illustrations from the original 'Winnie-the-Pooh,' published in 1924.Credit: Yoav Cohen-Manor

The same metamorphosis occurs in every home where there are children who play. Leave the kids by themselves without a television screen bombarding them with scripted stories, and watch how quickly they are drawn into the universe of play, creating rich worlds with infinite joy and inventiveness. How is it, then, that there are so many children who make up so many games, but only one Winnie-the-Pooh became a world-wide phenomenon. What's so special about him?

Perhaps the real story is different. Possibly the story behind the whole Winnie-the-Pooh phenomenon is of a parent sitting comfortably in an armchair and suddenly deciding to fold up the newspaper, or cease with whatever other important-thing-that-adults-do that occupies him just then, and observe his son at play. Milne looked at Christopher Robin and did not dismiss what he was doing on the carpet as “child’s play” or “silly,” but gave it the respect it deserved and at one stage even joined in the game and started to write it.

Most parents guard with some zealousness the boundary between the world of adults and that of the children. In most homes, the children are busy with their play world in the afternoon, while the parents are occupied with their parallel world of errands, arrangements, newspaper articles that have to be read and sharing likes on Facebook posts. When the children are still toddlers, they need considerable parental involvement during their play time, and Mom and Dad may lie down on the carpet next to the little one and mediate his world or her toys. Gradually, as children acquire greater control of their hands, bodies and minds, the parent withdraws and leaves an open field in which they are free to play and exercise their imagination they wish. What, then, is the parents’ role in the play-world when the child is big enough to play alone?

The “play space,” or "transitional space," a concept used by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, refers to the space between the real physical world and the child’s imagination, where creativity and an inner world of the psyche can develop. To be built and sustained, the play space requires clear boundaries and responsible parents. The parent needs to watch over the space’s defensive membrane and not invade it crudely, but also – and no less important – to be there. It is his or her job to be present, to be a spectator, to be a witness to the unfolding dramas, even if only with half an eye.

A bomb shelter adorned with a Winnie-the-Pooh illustration in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near the Gaza border. Credit: AFP

Small children want to show their parents the toys they are playing with, because by sharing with the adult they receive confirmation and stability for their inner world. Real playing is not wild fantasy but is created from the delicate and infinite interconnection between reality and imagination. It may seem a trivial matter for a child to invite a parent to join his game, but it is actually a very courageous act, as it is an open invitation into the depths of his being. In a twinkling, a parent can encourage the child to play and develop his or her imagination, and help to build more castles within the magical play space – or the parent can be critical and scornful, and downplay the value of those castles-of-the-imagination, and thus discourage the child from playing, and using the imagination and investigating his or her inner world.

The fact that the developing child has a protected play space is not a special privilege, it is one of the crucial needs of the psyche. A child who does not get encouragement to play will not develop self-confidence, dare to be creative and original, or develop a rich inner world – the foundation of a sense of identity and meaning. The absence of those traits is liable to lead in adulthood to occurrences of chronic boredom, a feeling of emptiness and a low self-image.

I would like to suggest that beginning next year, February 13, the day of A.A. Milne’s first publication about his son and his bear, be celebrated as Winnie-the-Pooh Day. It will be a festive occasion, celebrating the parent who lays aside his newspaper and views his or her child’s play with love and esteem. A holiday for the parent who still remembers how to awaken the silent dolls into life and is able to see Pooh, Tigger, Piglet and Rabbit. A day of celebration for every parent who is ready to get down on the carpet and join in the play. Because that’s something magical, and definitely worth celebrating.

Yoav Cohen-Manor is a bibliotherapist who works with children, adolescents and parents. He has a blog at newstory.co.il (in Hebrew).