Limiting fantasy play: A view of Mennonite kids

IMG_4330_800Views about what is good and bad for children vary across cultures. The rural Mennonite community in Chihuahua—perhaps the most visibly cohesive ethnoreligious immigrant group in Mexico—certainly has its own ideas. Briefly put here, Canadian Mennonite immigrants (originally from Russia) began settling in Chihuahua in 1922. Back then, the Mexican government seemed to believe that the country needed people like them to work the land, resulting in president Alvaro Obregón allowing Mennonites to establish an autonomous community in the north. Since then, this group has been able to practice its values freely, continue agrarian lifestyle, establish its own churches and schools, adhere to a community-centered lifestyle, and avoid technology, dress styles, and ideologies at variance with these ideals.

While gender and age dynamics are slowly changing in this community, young girls usually still help their moms at home, and boys as young as eight or nine years old ride tractors, work with crops, and help fix machines with older males. These values are reflect what adults in the Mexican community surrounding this group value children. Rural communities tend to expect children to start working at an early age. What seems unique to this group is the way in which Mennonite communities regulate children’s playing and learning. What I’ll share today is the result of a closer look at the Mennonite way of life and views concerning children.

A research study conducted by Wayne State University, titled “The Influence of Culture on Pretend Play: The Case of Mennonite Children (1998), compared Old and New Order Mennonites in Pennsylvania with non-Mennonite Christians. Since Mexico-based Mennonites have been able to remain autonomous, the findings of this study could relate to what goes on in this group. Broadly speaking, researchers concluded that non-Mennonite teachers were the most positive about pretend play, but Old Order Mennonite teachers were the most positive about private fantasies (e.g., imaginary companions). The report exlpains:

Although the capacity and inclination to pretend seem to appear spontaneously in all normally developing children as they acquire the ability to use symbols and engage in representational thought (Piaget, 1962), research on individual differences indicates that the sociocultural context is also crucial to the developmental course of pretense (e.g., Farver, 1992; Gaskins & Goncu, 1992; Haight & Miller, 1993). In many western middle-class families, pretend play is considered beneficial for young children and involvement in fantasy is strongly encouraged. For example, the first books read to many children are about fairies, talking animals, mermaids, and the like…

Not all families and all communities, however, value and facilitate children’s engagement in pretend play. Religious ideology constitutes one aspect of cultural context that contributes to substantial variation in adult attitudes about pretense. Although mainstream Christianity tends to support children’s involvement in fantasy activities—even toddlers are actively encouraged to participate in rituals involving fantasy characters such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny (Clark, 1995)—more fundamentalist sects tend to be less positive about pretend play and to espouse a child-rearing environment that is less conducive to its development. For example, our reading of the Mennonite and Amish literature gave the impression that pretend play is rarely discussed or embellished in Mennonite society, and in some cases is actively discouraged (e.g., Hostetler, 1993). Acceptable reading material for Mennonite children includes stories that represent an American rural way of life and teach a moral lesson (such as the value of hard work). Stories that have a fantasy orientation are considered unacceptable. The Amish “do not want their children to read fairy tales or myths; many object to any stories that are not true such as those in which animals talk and act like people or stories that involve magic, such as The Pied Piper of Hamlin” (Hostetler & Huntington, 1971, p. 46). Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonite faith, instructed parents not to encourage frivolous activities such as pretend play—”wink not at [their] follies.” Mennonites also believe that free time or idleness is detrimental to children’s development, thus young children are less likely to have the unstructured time that is believed to promote pretend play (Singer & Singer, 1990).

These findings suggest the importance of investigating the influence of culture on pretend play and the processes by which this influence occurs. In a way, they reminded me of Rousseau’s views of education (children cannot understand abstract concepts such as the soul before the age of about 15 or 16, so to introduce abstractions such as myths, fantasy play, and religion to them is dangerous), and of Plato’s Socrates’s attacks on great poets (like Hesiod and Homer) for creating inappropriate tales. (Children must be told that the gods are not the cause of all things, only those which are good and just. Children must look solely to human guardians for guidance.)

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—Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Managing Editor

To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here.

Cover image: credit unknown, retrieved from Revista Cd Anahuac Chihuahua; Featured image by Alexia Raynal

List of references

Education in Plato’s Republic” by Ariel Dillon (presented at the Santa Clara University Student Ethics Research Conference May 26, 2004)

Emile, or On Education,” Wikipedia article, retrieved on 07/28/14

The Influence of Culture on Pretend Play: The Case of Mennonite Children” by Stephanie M. Carlson, Marjorie Taylor and Gerald R. Levin (Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4, October 1998, pp. 538-565) Available only through subscription to


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