“Rural children imitate whereas urban children imagine” – What? Really?

Revisiting David Lancy’s comment in Anthropology of Childhood, an otherwise fabulous piece of work.

Around five years ago, I had posted this note on Facebook. We thought this debate was an interesting one to raise on Masala Chai to invite your thoughts on the matter. The original post had generated many comments that we append here for your reference. We hope this raises some questions in your mind about the nature of children’s play, and more importantly, the universality of children’s imaginative AND imitative play. Again, I believe that like our discussion about rote learning, we need to understand that these are essential dimensions of children’s strategies for learning and neither can be dismissed or ignored. Yet when an eminent Anthropologist like David Lancy writes this, one wonders if he has ever watched children in villages play. Gathering evidence from other studies and presenting it just doesn’t seem to provide the same insight as watching children first-hand. There can be no doubt in my mind, having witnessed and pored over hours of observations of children’s activities, that all children imitate and imagine…….here is the original post.

In Anthropology of Childhood, Lancy (2008) writes that findings about children’s play from a wide-range of research, indicate that when village children play, they mostly imitate, and when children from educated families play, they use imagination! Although the claim is pretty, I wonder HOW one can evaluate how much imagination is contained in imitation, and how much imitation in imagination? Maybe they too are imitating imaginary creatures??? 

:/ In serious doubt about this claim of an otherwise BRILLIANT account of childhood.

Here’s an interesting update in the news today 12.10.2019

In support of your argument on imagination of rural children
India has zero poverty of imagination: Mahindra on ‘mud carrom board’ pic
-via inshorts

Thanks to Pooja for her generosity in sharing pictures with us. The second picture was taken by Nandita outside the ancient Ajanta caves.

Here are three videos of village children playing that you may enjoy. Thank you Bhavna Negi for sharing these from your fieldwork.


  • Deepa Grover You should write a review on Amazon. Seriously.
  • Nandita Chaudhary Deepa….I’m writing something serious about this in my own ms. Coming out by the end of next year, hopefully! But yes, I think this needs to be noted publicly as well. When I need some distraction, I will!2
  • Nandita Chaudhary And I’ve written to Lancy πŸ˜›
  • Nandita Chaudhary So, the kid with the goat is imitating, and the one with a lego piece is imagining, ey???? Hmmm…….is this about play or power?
  • Nandita Chaudhary Or let me put it more poetically: Is it about the power of play or the play of power!! πŸ˜€ Ahhh….this feels nice!
  • Anjali Capila This needs to be said AlOUD
    I remember a research being quoted on tribal children by an eminent psychologist at a child development lecture in college several years ago wherein
    It was stated that tribal children sitting on a floor with squares demarcated by colored tape or rope exhibited very little movement
    Whereas children from an urban preschool moved about freely in the demarcated space
    Is this the way we asses …….
    The article above too suggests something like this research
    Nandita perhaps you would recall this presentation
    But do write about all this as it is very significant about how we make conclusions
    Since i am no child dev expert please correct me if i am nit on the right track
  • Nandita Chaudhary Anjali….since when are you NOT a CD expert, ey? You joined the fraternity decades ago! πŸ™‚ And, you are absolutely right. I think we make such assumptions when we cannot understand something fully, but feel compelled to evaluate on account of the degrees that adorn our names!! πŸ™‚
  • Nandita Chaudhary I think I know who you’re talking about, but the MOST horrifying EXPERT who was imposed on us was the one who read out the AGUA, AGUA, AGUA story to us for about 20 mins! To the hall-bright πŸ˜‰ experts who she thought (perhaps) had never seen a children’s book. What with all the monkey worship and all!! πŸ˜›
  • Nandita Chaudhary Oh…we have had our share of teachings on what NOT to think like πŸ˜›
  • Shruti Joshi Sharma Ma’m Last week i was in bharmour and i saw children playing cricket with a ball of wool. I believe somewhere observation and imagintion leads to action depending on the context. These children didn’t have the resources to play with plastic or leather ball, still they played using their imagination1
  • Pooja Bhargava Ahhh…I can clearly see this conclusion is probably being made over the disposal of resources each have to them. You point out exactly when you say imagination using lego or imitation using a real baby or a kid (baby goat!) what about imagination of games and plays using sticks and mud and everything else???? have loads to quote from my work too…:-)1D
  • Nandita Chaudhary Of course it is about power…..but Lancy’s work is so good in that regard, that I was kind of first taken up with the notion, until of course, the implications dawned on me. Well, as a species, if we didn’t imagine as foragers, we wouldn’t have got here in the first place!1
  • Nandita Chaudhary Shruti, exactly! I think to imagine a child who only imitates, or mostly imitates is a huge error! As a species, we have imagined since the origin, and expanding those horizons DOES NOT mean that other children do not, or cannot!! :/
  • Anjali Capila Am enjoying thus conversation for sure1
  • Nandita Chaudhary Anjali……and then one day, realisation will dawn that in order to have greater consonance between generations we need more imitative play!! As always, ding-dong! Pendulum swinging1
  • Nandita Chaudhary Pooja…another gem a few pages later: Children who have more opportunity to play, play more! πŸ˜›1
  • Nandita Chaudhary Tautology? Yeh!
  • Monika Abels Patricia makes this point about creativity/innovation in regard to her weaving study. That there is innovation when children are left to learn by trial and error and creativity stems from mistakes, basically. So, initially when mothers taught their daughters to weave hands on, the daughters learned the exact patterns that the mothers wove. Now mothers are busy with their own economic activities and children are taught by learners themselves.
    For play one could make the opposite argument- that WHEN they play, many village children are left to play more on their own and would therefore be more creative than urban children who are frequently supervised and instructed (e. g. on the “proper” usages of toys…).
  • Nandita Chaudhary Ashley as well, yes??
  • Nandita Chaudhary Monika. Mo…..I am deeply skeptical about the expression ‘creative’, though. Are we romanticising village life? I STILL don’t know what’s going on. There’s so much doubt in my mind about childhood! πŸ˜¦
  • Vini Gupta I am interested in reading this and knowing how did the author come to this conclusion
  • Nandita Chaudhary Vini, the argument is very well worked out. Will bring the book on 23rd for the meeting!
  • Vini Gupta thank you!
  • Nandita Chaudhary Please remind me….I am engulfed with words right now πŸ˜›
  • Vini Gupta will do!
  • Monika Abels yeah, I know. “creative”, “intelligent”…
    Are we romanticising village life? I don’t think so. You can see poverty leading children to use sticks and broken bangles and clods of dirt for their games and still say that using these things that way is “creative”.
  • Nandita Chaudhary I worry about what I write πŸ˜¦
  • Monika Abels ?
  • Nandita Chaudhary Actually, Vini. You should order the book for the office library.
  • Nandita Chaudhary Mo……..trying to disentangle stuff in the report that I’m finalising!!
  • Vini Gupta Yes, I too was thinking as this appears relevant to our present work
  • Nandita Chaudhary It certainly does
  • Nandita Chaudhary And Lancy says he has altered his views in the next edition. The chapter is attached and I am eager to read πŸ˜€2
  • Puja Agarwal Well definitely a very interesting proposition and more intriguing is how such conclusion is reached……coz to me the way a child structures his/ her play depends on many factors and creativity is something which can be experienced in such different ways…..that claiming something like imagination and imitation is restricted based on demographic profile is actually very very interesting….eager to read this book…..
  • Puja Agarwal And thanks mam for sharing such interesting information

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