Cultivating Imagination in Children

Having an imagination is a powerful thing.  The same forces that spark children to play house are the forces that spark new ideas in business, housekeeping, parenting, finances, science, art, and pretty much any endeavor which would require new ideas from time to time.  It is also one of the most overlooked, undervalued and discouraged traits in children.

Many people simply don’t understand how important imagination is.  Some people don’t know how to encourage it.  Some people don’t realize that they are impeding it as parents.  Whatever the reason, many children are the victims of a lack of cultivation in their imaginations.  Don’t worry!  As usual, I’m happy to help.  🙂

Imagination is important because it is the basis for teaching the brain to think of things, not as they are, but as they could be, or as we would like for them to be.  It is the force that lets our brains reach beyond the constraints of circumstance and finds hope, dreams, and the path to achieving the things we desire in life.  Without our imaginations, we couldn’t look at a corporate ladder and picture ourselves higher up, and figure out what steps we would need to get there.  Without our imaginations, we couldn’t look at a budget and figure out a way to save money in one area to make another feasible.  Without our imaginations, we couldn’t look at a problem in our home and conceive a way to fix it.  Imaginations are some of the most important tools that we have as humans!

So how do we encourage imaginations in our children?  Here are some great tips for you.

1.  Kids need private spaces to play, without adults directly watching them.  I can hear parents sucking in their breath, screwing up their faces, and calling me negligent already.  But, hear me out.  Playing without adults directly watching can be accomplished in very close quarters.  I am, by no means, suggesting that you should allow your children to play completely unsupervised – especially if they are very young.  But playing without adults watching is the only way that children can fully absorb into their own minds and wills and reach those new levels of imagination.  It is also the only way that they can play without their play being influenced by adults.  Play influenced by adults is a blow to the imagination..  When an adult is playing with a child, they almost always lead the play – even when they don’t mean to.  The adult is limited to what they believe to be true, while children are completely unlimited by such trifles.  An adult may feel that elephant soup is silly, while a child may feel that it is just a part of his or her game.  The adult bringing the tone of silly to the game changes the child’s perception of what they are imagining, and limits it to only being silly.

So, how does an adult give a child space to play, and still keep the child close enough to be safe?  Or how is this accomplished in quarters where there simply isn’t much space for playing without being watched?  Any type of a perceived barrier will allow children to become involved in their play.  In our former house, we were blessed with a first floor bedroom, right off of our open kitchen and dining room.  This room was our playroom while both of our children were still very young.  The children were happy to play in there by themselves for extended periods of time, even while they were very young.  Since Elliott has been old enough to scoot himself about, he has made his way to this playroom to join the older children in their play, while I cook, clean, or tend to my other chores in the nearby rooms.  Fenced yards can be made safe enough for children who are old enough to be responsible enough to follow the rules outside.  Sofi has been playing outside, unsupervised, in fenced yards since she was about 2 years old.  We’ve always made certain that there was no equipment that she could be hurt on, no baby pools, and no way she could get out of the yard. And when there isn’t that much space available, a set of playstands with a sheet over the top, behind a couch, or under a homemade tent is the perfect spot for children to disappear for a few hours.

Sheets over clotheslines to create a play tent at our camp site.

2.  Provide toys which encourage imagination.  Toys that are pigeon holed by being one thing and only one thing are the antithesis of imagination.  A doll that can only be a baby, or only an adult, or only a child, can only be what they are presented as.  A cloth doll with a less formed body can be whatever a child needs in the moment to aid in his or her play.  Even less flexible than a baby/child/adult doll is the character doll.  Children who have watched a character on television or in a movie and are then given the doll of that character are not as able to pretend that character into being something else.  There are always exceptions, but this is typically true.  My children, for example, have the Grinch and Max dolls from How the Grinch Stole Christmas!  They use them simply as a dog, and as one of Sofi’s favorite babies.  I think this is largely due to the fact that they had the dolls for several years before they heard the story of the Grinch.  Toys which light up, make noise, talk, tell the child how to play, or attempt to teach the child while the child plays also greatly inhibit imagination.  To adults, these toys have value as they distract the child with lights and noise, or seem to aid in imagination if the toy phone really makes dial tones.  But to children, it is harder to imagine that they are calling the president if the phone only pretends to call mom and grandma, or only rings and no one ever answers.  And toys that are attempting to teach children while the children play actually keep a child from reaching their own inner mind to find their own creativity.  I have many things to say against this type of toy, but I will limit it to this:  If you are going to buy a toy to teach a child something, please do not disguise this toy as being a toy for imaginative play.  Have the expectation that there will be times devoted to playing with the educational toy and times that will be devoted to imagination based toys.

Kids of all ages can enjoy imagination based toys together.

3.  Limit media.  Kids today spend a record amount of time in front of screens.  The latest reports show that 2-5 year old children spend an average of nearly 25 hours per week in front of a television.  For those of you who are bad at math, that is over three and a half hours per day!  There are a lot of factors involved in making judgments on television, including the type of programming watched, adult participation in the viewing experience, and conversation surrounding the viewing.  But one thing is certain – the more time in a day that a child is sitting in front of a box watching something happen and having no choices about what is happening in front of them, the less time they are spending creating their own story lines and agendas.

4.  Provide fodder for imagination.  Reading to children, telling them stories, providing colorful environments, and exposing them to thoughts of new things that they are not in daily contact with will spur children to think about things in new ways, and to play them out.  This does also include images taken from media, like outer space, animals or environments not native to the child’s native locale, and story lines that the children aren’t familiar with (like Little House on the Prairie!  I had to work it in somehow).  However, imagination is spurred just as easily, if not even more easily, by watching the adults present and imitating their actions.  If children only see adults sitting in front of screens, it will be much more difficult for the children to imagine other scenarios involving adults.  Watching me hang out laundry makes it easier to imagine what Ma might have done out there on the prairie without a dryer.

5.  Schedule time for practice each day.  Plan free play time into your day each day.  Start doing this as young as possible!  Free play means that your child decides what to play and plays it without the aid of an adult.  It does not mean that the adult puts on a princess crown and plays tea party as the child directs.  Free play is better and more effective when more children of varying ages are added to the mix.  The more time children spend in free play, the less time they spend expecting to be entertained and the better their imaginations become!  Just like playing the piano, practice makes the performance better.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s