It’s sad, but so many children with disabilities will never receive the opportunity to throw the winning touchdown pass, dance and sing the big finale, nor answer the tie-breaker quiz bowl question. Children love imaginative play, so often with themselves heralding the role of hero or heroine. Research now suggests (Taylor, Carlson, Maring, Gerow & Charley, 2004) that possibly two-thirds of first graders may regularly engage in imaginative play either discussions with invisible companions (girls’ preference) or in action-oriented role plays (boys’ preference). Why do so many children then choose to regularly engage in fantasy-based play? In his classic text, Childhood and Society (1950), Erik Erikson penned:
One meaning of Ben’s play could be that it affords his ego a temporary victory over his gangling body and self by making a well-functioning whole . . . . It permits him to be an entity within which he is his own boss, because he obeys himself. . . . Yet the emphasis, I think, should be on the ego’s need to master the various areas of life, and especially those in which the individual find his self, his body, and his social role wanting and trailing. To hallucinate ego mastery and yet also practice it in an intermediate reality between fantasy and actuality is the purpose of play . . . (p. 211-212)
It is this marvelous mirage, this propensity to dreamily, egocentrically explore the unreal that now fuels the design and energy of Malone University’s Campus Carnival for Kids – especially our wonderful little guests with life-altering disabilities.
Though these children’s physical bodies and cognitive functioning centers may be impaired, we have yet to meet a child attending our campus carnivals who seems unwilling or uninterested in fantasy-based, problem-solving games. During these games children must interact with a costumed, fictional character and then assume the role of rescuer by overcoming whatever situation has stymied the actor. For example, in one of the Carnival’s most popular games, You’re the Quarterback, the child joins a huddle of hulking Malone football players assuming the role of quarterback. The child must call the play, then in an instant the child is taking the snap, scanning the (mini)field of clashing, huge bodies, then picking her moment of truth, she darts up the middle for the game-winning score. After a roar of approval and sweaty, hulking high-fives, the miniature quarterback typically emerges bearing a beaming smile – a true hallucinatory hero of Erikson’s intermediate reality.
In another example, at the Rescuing Fairytale Land-themed campus carnival in 2014, children lined up for the chance to be a knight-in-training. The child, armed with a (Nerf) sword, warded off dark knights while crawling through darkened (cardboard) caves, only to be confronted by an ominous, six-foot, furry monster. Though we as carnival planners rely on children’s instincts for fantasy play, we were a bit apprehensive as to whether a furry, purple monster (inhabited by a Malone defensive lineman) would be too overwhelming. Boy, were we wrong! Not only did the kids’ sense of heroic fantasy kick in as they exited the cave-tunnel, but several times the muscular monster ended up in the fetal position having to be rescued from the pummeling sword falls of an overzealous seven-year-old knight. This observation would seem to agree with the conclusions reached by Sharon and Woolley (2004) in their study of whether young child can readily distinguish between real and imaginary creatures:
This is a very different kind of confusion than confidently holding a belief in the incorrect reality status. A child who expresses hesitation when asked whether a monster is real or pretend has not yet achieved an adult understanding of the insubstantiality of monsters, but neither is he or she committed to a belief in their reality. (p. 305-306)
Thus, whether called upon to aid Little Red Riding Hood in her journey through the Whack-A-Wolf forest, outwit Papa Bear at tic-tac-toe to rescue Goldilocks, or helping a tongue-tied frog zing flies out of the air, young children are treading a fine line between actuality and make-believe as they play. This special ability for fantasy-based role playing forms the guiding mantra of our carnival activities development. In the guise of a particular game or experience, children can imagine themselves doing what they have never done before or might never have the opportunity to do in the future.
The first year of the Campus Carnival for Kids was a brush with disaster. With almost no budget and a simplistic strategic design, the carnival stumbled out of the gate. The next year, as organizers, we were much more intentional about our preparations, forming deeper and broader networks across the campus. University Relations now assists with planning the carnival weeks in advance, organizing an array of press releases, radio interviews, and professional poster designs. Suzie Thomas, Director of University Relations for Malone University, comments,
Malone University is known for strong academics integrated with Christian faith and service in an atmosphere that fosters community, leading to exceptional outcomes for our graduates. University Relations happily partners with the Campus Carnival for Kids as that this outstanding event supports every one of these five core tenets.
From the start Malone’s Pioneer Athletics Department has been a partner with SCOPE, supplying the carnival with as many teams of volunteer student-athletes as we needed, many serving in the carnival, others, such as this year’s Pioneer baseball team, working at pre-carnival set up and post-carnival clean up. Malone University Athletics Director, Charlie Grimes, states:
Malone Athletics is a proud partner with SCOPE to serve the community through the Kid’s Carnival. Our athletes have enjoyed interacting with not only the children attending, but also their fellow Malone students and faculty in the Education Department. The Carnival has reminded our students of the great influence they have on children, and the encouragement they can be to parents and each other as they have fun and serve together. All in all, it’s one of the highlights of our year, and we look forward to making this impact for years to come.
In addition, each year Malone’s physical plant staff donate their time to build a special object of our choice whether a Whack-a-mole game, a puppet stage, or suspending a 50-foot castle backdrop along the gym’s rear wall. This year, we’ve begun reaching out to other academic departments to attract non-education majors with a heart for serving children, including the Malone Christian Nurses Association, and the Christian Ministries Department.
As to the real mission of serving children with disabilities, perhaps our strongest partnerships are beyond our campus walls. Almost three years ago, we contacted a local school specializing in serving the needs of children with especially problematic disabilities. Southgate School (Canton, Ohio) became the first off-campus site for our mini-carnival entitled, Carnival-2-Go! The next year we joined hands with a nearby public school in downtown Canton giving our Malone students the opportunity to share the Carnival-2-Go! with more than 300 children from urban, disadvantaged settings. Thus, by forming collaborative partnerships with local schools we have been able to more than double, almost triple, our annual outreach.
Yet of all the partnerships that we have experienced through the children’s carnival, none has been more potent (or time consuming) as SCOPE’s own internal networks. Some of our student leaders are like SCOPE’s co-advisor, Dr. Sarah Hamsher, who is especially talented at issues of organization, needs assessment, task delegation, and project oversight. But as valuable as these student leaders are, there is also a legitimate needs for the creatively divergent, right-brained reasons, more akin to myself. Without both of these vital skill sets, the carnival could not flourish as it does. This awkward balance of diverse traits so common to effective teaching teams was studied by Bers and Portsmore (2005) who investigated the atypical partnerships formed when early childhood education majors were paired with engineering majors to develop effective robotics curriculums for young students. Partners who learned to overcome their differences, appreciate the other’s strength, and work collaboratively yielded the best results for the children. The authors concluded,
For students in both the child development and the engineering departments, the collaborator’s model proved to be the most effective, but also the most time consuming. It involved a major commitment but also returned the highest benefits” (p. 66).
This balancing-of-differences as the basis for effective within-team partnerships has also resonated so strongly with SCOPE that we now use it as the basis for those undergraduates selected to serve as SCOPE’s student leaders each year.
Thus, Malone University’s Campus Carnival for Kids, now in its fifth year, is not the mere invention of one individual, not even one group, but rather is an effective amalgamation of multiple small groups on and off-campus who collaborate effectively for the benefit of those children most in need.
Bers, M. and Portsmore, M. (2005). Teaching partnerships: Early childhood and engineering student teaching math and science through robots. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 14:1, p. 59-73.
Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society, W.W. Norton and Co., New York.
Sharon, T. and Woolley, J. (2004). Do monsters dream? Young children’s understanding of the fantasy/reality distinction. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 22, p. 293-310.
Taylor, M., Carlson, S., Maring, B., Gerow, L., and Charley, C. (2004). The characteristics and correlates of fantasy in school-age children: Imaginary companions, impersonation, and social understanding. Developmental Psychology, 40:6, p. 1173-1187.