What is magic to a child?

What is magic to a child?

Originally published in the book, Seriously Silly

Your sister is vacationing in Rome. At 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, you get a phone call. She excitedly tells you that she is calling from her cell phone in the restaurant where she has just had dinner with Luciano Pavarotti, her favorite opera star. She took a photo of herself and her idol with her phone, and she is eager to share this experience with you. She sends the photo to you and you download it onto your computer. You clean it up in Photoshop, print it out, and hang it on your wall by 3:00. Then you email it to the rest of your family for them to see as well.

As amazing as this sequence of events seems, it is still more magical when a magician pulls a playing card out of thin air with his hand.

Years ago, this cell phone scenario might have appeared to be a magic trick. But today, we know the capabilities of technology, and so we know it is not magic. In 1960, if you put a frozen meal in a box, pushed some buttons and removed it two minutes later fully cooked, that might have been a magic trick. But now we understand it to be the normal use of a microwave oven.

Do you doubt this? Then take the example of the Light and Heavy Chest. In the 1850’s Robert-Houdin used a little known principle called electricity to seemingly sap all the strength from a large man. We now know the method for achieving this feat was electromagnetism.

When a bird flies, it is normal. But when David Copperfield flies, it is magic. (When David Blaine flies, it’s a camera trick.) We know that birds can fly, and that people can’t. That’s how we define what is magic and what is not magic. Just like our technology story, when we witness something that we understand completely, we place it into the category of a normal experience. And when we witness something that breaks the laws of nature as we understand them to be, it is magic.

I just bought a great new effect. It consists of a black box, two feet long on each side. One side of the black box is made of glass. This effect is remote controlled. Using the remote control from anywhere in the room, the magician can make a picture appear on the glass. Not just any picture, but a moving image with accompanying sound. Then, by pushing the remote control, the magician can make that moving picture change into another moving picture. The image can be changed more than 50 times. Each time the magician can create a completely different image on the glass.

The name of this magical machine is, of course, a television. But this oblique description was to make a point. As adults, we understand our world and the things in it. But there are many things about our world that a child does not understand. Each day a child learns more about what is normal in the world and what is not.

As a child grows and experiences the world, there is so much that he doesn’t understand. Most of the experiences a child has must be accepted without questioning. When a parent pushes a button on the black box in the living room – the television set – and flips through the channels, the child does not ask himself, “How do these pictures get into this box?” Since the experience of watching television is presented as ordinary, the child accepts it as being ordinary.

When mom answers the phone and hands the small plastic handle to the child, sometimes daddy’s voice is in there. Sometimes grandma’s voice is in there. Again, this is not perceived to be magic because it is presented as ordinary.

Everything around a child seems like magic. That is, until all of the natural conditions of the device are fully understood. So, for example, once a child learns that the TV has hundreds of programs in it, this becomes accepted as a natural. But if the TV set suddenly floated up in the air and spun around, this would seem like magic since it doesn’t reflect what the child has learned to be a naturally occurring quality of the television.

The converse of this can be quite interesting. Have you performed magic for an adult and a child together. The adult often says to the child, “Hey Bobby, did you see that!” This adult feels the need to point out to the child that what they just saw was not ordinary but was instead magic.

Most of what a child witnesses is not understood completely by him. However, there are some things that even a very young child fully comprehends. For example, a child knows that if you pick up a crayon and rub it against a surface, it leaves a mark. If you hold a cup of water, and turn it upside down, the water spills out. If you put small items into a container, and carry the container from point A to point B, the items will still be inside when you get to point B.

The best magic for children relates to these kinds of concepts, which the child understands completely. This is perhaps why pulling a coin from a child’s ear is so deeply magical. Kids have had ears for their whole lives (2 or 3 years!). At a very young age a baby learns that the ear is where sounds are heard. As he grows the child feels he knows all the natural qualities of an ear. He knows for sure that producing money is not one if it’s characteristics. So when a coin is pulled from a child’s ear, it is magic. Even though you have a closet full of miracles, your four-year old is blown away by the quarter from the ear.

This is why the Needle Through Balloon trick is also effective with children. Children learn early, and probably by accident, that balloons can pop easily. They know also that if you push a needle into a balloon the balloon will pop. “Be careful the balloon could pop,” is a phrase they hear often at parties. So, when a needle is inserted into a balloon and the balloon doesn’t pop, this breaks a natural law, and appears to be magic.

In fact, if we look back at my examples of the simple concepts that children understand completely, we discover that there are in fact magic tricks that tap into this very basic knowledge.

Drawing with a crayon — A child knows that when you press a crayon to a surface and move it, the crayon leaves a mark. This very basic understanding is what makes the Magic Drawing Board such an effective trick for children. The effect of the Magic Drawing Board, by Steve Axtell, is that the magician draws a face on a large board. Suddenly, the eyes start moving, the mouth opens and closes, and the face becomes animated. This face then has a conversation with the magician. This experience breaks the natural laws that a child knows deeply which relate to drawing with a crayon.

Spilling a cup of water — Children know that when you turn a cup of water upside down, the water spills out onto the floor. This principle is what makes Slush Powder such a powerful trick for children. A magician pours water in to a Styrofoam cup. Then turns the cup upside down, and the water has vanished. The same knowledge about spilling is what makes the Milk Pitcher so effective for children as well. The magician makes a cone out of a newspaper, and pours milk into it. After he says the magic words, he unfurls the newspaper and the milk has disappeared.

Items placed in a container will be in the container later — But when a magician places an object in a Change Bag and says the magic words, suddenly the object is no longer in the bag.

All three of these magic tricks break a law of nature that even very young children understand completely. When performing magic for children, the best tricks will relate to, or challenge, a natural fact that children understand completely.

One more thing. The best magic for children has another characteristic. It uses props that are familiar to a child. That’s why younger children don’t care for card tricks. They just aren’t familiar with the properties of a deck of cards. Of course we know that the best magic for adult audiences uses props that are familiar to adults. That’s why trick decks and trick coins are made out of real decks and real coins. What good would it be if you pushed a cigarette through a blue disc with a picture of a rainbow on it? This is why mentalists use books for book tests that look exactly like actual books that people have read. That’s why it is better to continually pour water from an empty coffee pot than an empty Lota Bowl. What is a Lota Bowl? I know! It’s that magic thing that magicians use to pour water out of.

Therefore approach your kid shows in the same way. Use props that the children recognize. Items such as a coloring book, an American flag, and a pitcher of milk.
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