Kids made their own shields at the trial run of The Imaginary Game last summer. Photo from Ridgeville Park District

 John Dalton is a designer, innovator and trailblazer. More cerebral than the character Gene Wilder portrayed in “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” but equally charismatic is the genius behind Imaginary Services, a “design and experience company.” One of the most rewarding, fantastical and amazing projects to come out of this startup is something called The Imaginary Game.

The Imaginary Game is a role-playing game for children ages 8-14, to be held in Kamen Park in South Evanston in two-week stints this August. Evanston residents can register online at, but by the time this article is printed, registration for both two-week sessions may already be filled. It’s that popular.

Mr. Dalton created this game because he saw a gap in after-school programming, in part based on his own experiences as a single parent. Most after-school programs end around 4 or 5 p.m., well before many working parents can pick up their kids.

What he envisioned was a designated area for kids to make their own worlds based on a set of prescribed rules, which is another way to describe The Imaginary Game. All the content would be created by the players, assisted by counselors. Mr. Dalton would be in charge of the entire operation.

 To test The Imaginary Game, Mr. Dalton created a camp experience in June 2018. Excited children showed up with their sack lunches, not knowing exactly what to expect. The first order of business was to form a large group circle. After introductions were made,  Mr. Dalton presented the four principles that guide each day’s play.

Gamers were taught to ask these four questions before taking any action:

First, “Is it safe?”

Second, “Is it kind?”

Third, “Is it fun?”

Fourth, “is it fun for just me, or is it fun for everyone?” If anyone ever felt uncomfortable about any part of the game at any time, all she or he needed to do was raise both hands above their head and step out for a break. Language was also specific: Gamers did not “die” or “end.” They were tagged out or KO’d and then allowed to play anew.

Each day started and ended with meditation for the entire group. Teams were formed and roles chosen. Younger kids and older kids had to figure out how to work together to advance each character, create their story, develop their play weapons and determine their magic. Mornings were spent in Fight, Craft and Adventure modules, while the afternoons were reserved for enactment.

Fight focused on swordplay workshops: teaching kids how to fight safely, with rules that made certain no one got hurt. Craft focused on building weapons and shields, using bamboo, cardboard and masking tape. Adventure focused on developing the story and rules for their “land.” Every day the teams bonded more as a unit and their output as a team improved accordingly.

 Each child participated to the best of his or her ability and the groups accommodated appropriately. Emotions were often very intense, but Mr. Dalton and the counselors were there to help validate feelings and reclaim calm from chaos. The concept of “fair” came up more than once, but was quickly pooh-poohed. As Mr. Dalton acknowledged, “Fair doesn’t exist. It’s never an even playing field. It’s my job to help the kids learn to recognize what about themselves is essential, and then to use those features, traits or skills to their advantage.”

 The test run was a resounding success. One father described how his son came home feeling “empowered” by the storyline that the kids were creating within Mr. Dalton’s framework. Twelve-year-old Nick, who attended the first week of The Imaginary Game, loved his experience, made new friends, and felt “liberated” playing.  He said, “Every day I used so much energy! It was fun, creative, and gave us a chance to build. I learned to respect everyone’s game character and to play using the ‘kind, safe, and fun’ rules. I can’t wait to go back.” Nick’s mother noted his increased self-confidence and growing sense
of introspection, that “I didn’t realize he had.”

 Azra said he enjoyed it because it “was fun and creative for everyone.” Previously he had spent some of his free time playing video games, mostly alone. Since attending The Imaginary Game, he prefers crafting cardboard armor and weapons, building on the skills he learned last summer, often with the new friends he made at The Game. When he would tell his parents about his day, his mom said he emphasized “the teamwork, diplomacy, and verbal communication” that went into each action. He described “rich conversations” and the “actual feelings” that he felt every day after playing. Azra is such a fan that his most recent birthday party was a themed mini version of The Imaginary Game.

Mr. Dalton has big dreams for The Imaginary Game. The game is for kids, but role playing has applications, among other places, in hospitals to prepare for complex operations, emergency management to rehearse communication and clarify responsibilities among first responders, and the military – between units, divisions and countries.

Mr. Dalton is determined to instill values of respect, safety, kindness and fun throughout the game, and to make it available to all children. It’s a great time to be a kid in Evanston

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...