My wife and I were fortunate enough to be able to send our daughter to a very unique private school when she was in grade school. The Village School in Royalston Massachusetts is a delightful place where my child not only got a good education as a student but as a person. What made the experience truly valuable is that I became a better parent through my interactions with the faculty, the other parents and the students themselves. The school and its families are very much a community that work, play and learn together.
One of the things I learned at the school is that children will create and play their own games of incredible depth and imagination if you just get out of the way. The Village School kids get a much longer recess time than public schools (or most other private schools for that matter) They have access to the edge of a forest where they build fairy houses, construct shelters out of sticks and logs and they’re out there in almost all weather. We car pooled with a couple of other families. The drive was 30 or 40 minutes if the weather was a little poor. The kids would tell me about what ever make believe game they were playing at recess and often they would use these little stuffed animal key chains to continue their play in the car. For a half hour straight, strapped into a five point car seat harness, these kids would have complicated social interaction without paper, without maps, without dice, without rules.
Rules constrain play. It’s why we have rules; to allow one behavior but not another. At the Village School and in the back seat of my truck there was one rule; Be kind. After that, it was all fair game. They played a game of anthropomorphic animal wizard gangs for a while. My daughter was a cheetah. She played without rules, without mechanisms without any structure other than what they negotiated in the moment themselves. The Village School provided a structure where play like this could happen but then got out of the way and let the kids go to it.
My feeling about RPG’s with kids is this. Table top RPG’s are great but I’d rather see children play their own games. If a kid asks to play an then I’m happy to run it for them but I would rather them be outside building a fort and pretending they are a wizard in a castle with other children not with a set of rules that are imposed by adults. They can learn the game when they get a little older and the excitement of their own games wears off. I think kids get a lot out of imaginative play that is stifled by table top RPG’s. There are exceptions of course but my default is that table top RPG’s are inferior to the games kids make up themselves.