My kids love to play, seriously, they LOVE to play. But then again, which kid doesn’t? Play is said to be one of the cornerstones of a child’s development. If we watch our kids play, we can see that they aren’t limited by what’s in front of them. During virtually all play, they interact, express themselves, make plans, react to other things and try even more new things. Their only limit is what their imagination permits. To them, even the sky isn’t the limit.
As Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” The development of thinking skills (cognitive development) during these early years drives children to do many creative and imaginative things. As the child develops these cognitive skills, related abilities like problem solving skills are also developed as they face everyday challenges, whether it’s at home or at school. But to come up with creative or innovative ideas, a child will have to learn to think outside the box, which requires the use of their imagination.
So, what is imagination? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” In another way, we can say that imagination involves these things:
- Mental constructs – something that only exists or happens in the mind
- The ability to visualise things that are not real
- The ability to form a picture in the mind of something that has not been seen or experienced
- The ability to think of new things
Imagination is essential in the learning process and helps to enhance cognitive development. Theorists in childhood development such as Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky often use terms like pretend play or make-believe play (the acting out of stories which involves different perspectives and the playful manipulation of ideas and emotions), that reflect a critical feature of the child’s cognitive and social development. Also, teaching children basic facts and skills such as history and science, exposing them to diverse cultures, foods and peoples adds on to their imagination as it adds to their base knowledge on which they extrapolate and expand. Imaginative play is a way for them to express what they have learned and experienced.
Current research has also shown clear benefits of imaginative play. These include increases in language skills, social skills, communication skills, problem solving abilities and even empathy. The very act of playing also helps with physical development as they move around, but also helps with synaptic development as the child makes new connections with the things they do.
Here are 10 tips and suggestions for nurturing a child’s imagination:
- Arts and Craft. Art is a creative expression which really does personify imagination. It allows children to express ideas through many mediums, including drawing, painting or sculpting. Simple crafts like puppet making or origami is also a good way to express themselves. At the same time, these activities help develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
- Go outdoors. Nature is always changing; trees and plants grow, they produce flowers and fruits, animals and insects grow and change shape/forms. It provides a lot of opportunities for children to observe, think, ask questions and start learning. Even simpler, it provides toys for them to play, like sand to draw in, leaves and branches to build with or even just sitting down and watching and emulating the animals and insects.
- Verbal activities. Verbal interactive activities like songs, rhymes and riddles can inspire and nurture imaginative minds. Simple games or changing lyrics of common nursery rhymes or songs helps to build vocabulary as well.
- Playing with scenarios. Encourage children to create (or recreate) a scenario. You may have noticed that after a visit to the doctor, they go home and pretend to be a doctor to their toys, siblings or friends. Parents and teachers can participate by taking on a role as well. Encourage different roles with other experiences they may have had. Allow the child take the lead during playtime.
- Reading. Read books to and with children. Talk about how else a story might end, for example, what if when Snow White woke up, she made Prince Charming her butler instead of marrying him? Make up stories with the child (maybe even with the child as the main character) and take turns continuing it.
- Ask Questions. Asking open-ended and thought-provoking questions is a good way to get children to express their ideas and share thoughts. Questions like “what’s the difference between cows and horses?”, “what would happen if…?” and “what do you think of…?”
- Use props and toys. All sorts of things can be used to foster creativity and imagination. Empty boxes can be anything from a car or plane to a castle and everything in between. Blocks can be used to build things or be things. A simple blanket can be a super hero’s cape or even the whole entire ocean.
- Making and Listening to Music. Like art, music is another good personification of creativity and imagination. Listening to and playing musical instruments provides a good platform for children to build more experiences and foster creativity and imagination. It may get a bit noisy, but children are rarely quiet…
- Caring for Things. From a young age, children love to watch things grow, whether carrot seeds or kittens. For example, let each child grow an eye from a potato plant and let all the children compare which plant grew faster and has greener leaves. You can even set up a small vegetable garden in your school or at home.
- Finally, carry out activities in a relaxed manner. Unstructured, unscheduled time allows children opportunities to imagine and create.
What are the outcomes of Imaginative Play?
Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner at Harvard proposed that imaginative play helps children develop “theories” that enable them to master most life skills. One may test Bruner’s theory by giving a 5- or 6-year-old a hoop. When the child is asleep the parents can distort the curvature of the hoop. Next day when the child goes out to play he or she will correct the hoop’s distortion, proving that the child in a few minutes of play will have learned a basic principle of physics, “The efficiency of a wheel depends upon all radii being of equal length.” No one lectured the child on this physics. The child learns the principle in a natural way and almost never forgets it.
Imagination is a critically important human characteristic; as Sir Ken Robinson said, “imagination is the source of all human achievement.” It is a process which requires various elements, and helping to develop imagination requires some ability and skill. Parents and/or care providers/teachers can help children develop their imagination by providing open, creative and meaningful learning environments which encourage questioning and discovery. As a child discovers new things, new connections are made, new possibilities open, more creativity is engendered and further imagination happens. In a way, imagination breeds further imagination, and I cannot imagine a world without imagination.