Magical blanket forts, cardboard rocket ships, princess towers guarded by grumpy dragons, and troops of teddy bear soldiers all make for hours of playtime fun. These are the days of imagination!
My husband and I would always laugh after a Christmas morning of bountiful presents when our kids would disregard their toys and wind up playing with the boxes. And I realized there is something beautiful about how a child sees potential in an unornamented, uncolorful, uncategorized item. They don’t see them just as a container for something else that’s meaningful, or a pan that boils pasta, or a couch or bed that serves a specific purpose. They see possibility. And those possibilities help to fuel their expansive imaginations!
Imagining supports a child’s development. Einstein even said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Did you know that a child’s imagination aids in developing mental abilities as well as their physical, emotional, and social development? It also assists with language, creativity, empathy, and problem-solving skills. What parent doesn’t want their child to excel in all of these areas? These benefits come from them not having boundaries, being allowed to think freely, and running on creative fuel.
Imagining also allows them to process things that are going on in their lives. Take a child that scolds their doll or teaches their stuffed elephant to draw pictures with its trunk or covers the family dog with a blanket and checks for a temperature and then proceeds to feed it one piece of dog food at a time. A study in 2013 found that children engaged in imaginative play express “more emotional engagement, thoughtfulness and understanding, and less negative emotional expression such as selfishness and anger.” And every parent wants such things for their children (and the rest of their family).
There is so much to feed their imagination in today’s world, from cartoons to animated films, from video games to live-action movies. But make sure that these pre-scripted creations aren’t the only things that they imitate. Push them to create with their own minds, to mix and match, etc. And supporting their imaginations doesn’t cost anything because all they need is time, space, and encouragement!
Yes, some kids are more natural at creative play than others. But most children have vivid imaginations tucked away somewhere, and with a bit of encouragement they’ll throw open the doors and run with it. All they might need is a spark of an idea or a thought-provoking question from a parent.
Now you might worry that too many ocean voyages in the bathtub, pirate trips on the bed, or dragon fruit milk consumed at breakfast might mean they are getting too far from reality. Research shows that even if they are talking about pink monkeys or acting like they’re driving on the moon, by age three children know the difference between what is real and what is make-believe. What better way to develop adults that know how to think outside “the box” than by letting them live outside “the box” during childhood?
Since all parents want to raise children who reach their optimal potential, empowering their imagination should be a priority. Here are some tips:
· PLAY OUTSIDE: Nature presents a child with endless possibilities, especially as the seasons change and give them new food to feed on. Plus, while they’re “playing,” they learn plenty of good things about the world around them.
· DEVISE SCENARIOS: Sometimes, we need to “prime the pump.” Offer ideas if they need a place to start, or simply let your child develop their own situations as a starting point. It could be as simple as a doctor or farmer or as original as you can invent. Inserting physical objects can add another level to their play: stuffed animals, regular household items, something random, or craft projects created just for such a scenario.
· USE WORDS: Help your child develop not only their imagination but their vocabulary and phonics awareness. Nursery rhymes, poetry, or making up new song lyrics to a familiar song are some ideas, as well as games like “I Spy.” This kind of verbal nudging of the imagination is perfect for traveling or situations where sitting and being still is required.
· ASK QUESTIONS: Open-ended questions are always best. They give room for a child to think and elaborate. And a large part of this is to get them thinking, questioning, and figuring things out for themselves. “What do you think would happen if . . .” is a great place to start.
· CREATE ART: Art should be a way to nurture expression and creativity. Kids can express by pounding on playdough or painting in bright colors with big strokes. The beauty in art is it could be anything and done in any way. Make sure to provide some basics tools and then teach them how much fun it is. Sometimes help them follow a pattern or instructions; other times, encourage them to go their own way and do their own thing.
· READ, READ, READ: Books are an incredible way to develop a child’s imagination. Making up stories together takes these opportunities to a whole new level. We have played a game where each person adds another sentence to the story, and, boy, do they get crazy. (But isn’t that the point.)
· MAKE DOWNTIME A PRIORITY: Kids need time to play—period. Try to give them downtime as often as possible where their time is open-ended and unstructured. This will give them the most freedom and allow them more opportunities to let their Martians-invading-the-planet-Sandwichtown imaginations run wild.
One other thing to mention is to make sure that electronics don’t consume all of a child’s free time. Sometimes programs available through digital methods can be positive, but this is also passive, whether it’s learning or not. Kids don’t have to think, process, or use their bodies. I’m not saying electronics don’t have their place and their benefits, but if you have to choose, leave the electronics off and allow children to use their own minds to create their own world and make their own fun rather than being entertained or taught by someone else’s.
Yes, this time in a child’s life is fun! Their creativity is endless, their imaginations only bounded by their opportunities to use them. But their imagination can be fun on so many levels and for those around them too. So, make sure to join them so that it can be fun bonding time as well. Plus, parents make the best cranky trolls, sleeping princesses, and pirate kings anyway!
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