Imagination: The very word seems to sparkle with possibility, and brings to mind a childlike energy and spontaneity that most of us know we should try to attain more often, even if we don't always know how.
As parents, we know we should foster our children's imaginations -- but our busy lives often don't seem to have a place for creativity that isn't tied to productivity. Schools, too, don't know how to tackle the not-so-tangible subject.
"I think when you present the idea of imagination to parents, they are generally in favor of it," says Thomas Armstrong, author of Awakening Your Child's Natural Genius ($15, J.P. Tarcher). "Yet when you probe a little deeper and center in on how much time parents and teachers wish to allocate to imagination in the schools, you find a very different attitude." Of course, imagination is something we should all favor. Child-development experts unanimously celebrate the benefits of a healthy imagination. A child with a good imagination is happier and more alert, better able to cope with life's twists and turns, and more likely to grow into a well-adjusted, secure adult.
"Imagination allows children to develop forces of creativity," says Eugene Schwartz, director of teacher-education programs at Sunbridge College, which trains teachers specifically for Waldorf Schools -- schools known for their systematic nurturing of imagination and creativity in children from kindergarten through twelfth grade. "And that means as adults they are going to be creative individuals."
Being a creative adult doesn't necessarily mean you're a painter or sculptor, Schwartz adds. CEOs and political leaders, too, benefit from being creative, which lets them see things in new ways and find solutions to problems others might miss. That kind of problem-solving and innovative thinking begins with the power of imagination.
So how do we inspire this power in our children? Start with these fundamentals in mind.
"You don't need a beautifully illustrated book; you don't need a video," says Schwartz. "It's the one-on-one connection, the parent and the child, with the story mediating, that takes us back to the archetype of all education, of all human relationships, in which the older generation passes on the wisdom to the next generation." Storytelling may well be the cornerstone of imaginative development, and doing it well and in a variety of ways is something you can do almost every day -- even if it is only in brief moments.
Paint, draw, mold, build, sculpt. Tactile experiences are important, and giving young children free rein over their work is crucial -- don't force a yellow splotch on a page to be a sun, for example.
Use natural or generic materials.
Keeping kids in touch with objects from nature inherently inspires their imagination. So does play with open-ended toys -- such as blocks or sand -- that have endless possibilities.
Foster a sense of inner space.
Parents should keep young children in particular from being overloaded by images from the media, whether it's television, movies, or computers. "We have to leave kids with enough of an inner space to create their own pictures, their own vision," says Schwartz. "What goes on too often is that we are not turning children into creators; we're turning them into consumers."
Once you are armed with the above tools, try these 10 activities. Consider them a stepping-stone -- you can do as many things to foster your child's imagination as your own imagination can dream up.
Gather a box of assorted household items -- a strainer, a shoe box, paper cups, a flashlight, whatever you can think of that's not sharp or fragile -- and have your child create a puppet show using these objects as the "puppets." You'll be amazed at the creatures and characters your child creates.
2. Wacky photos.
Raid your drawers for old photographs that no one will miss -- the ones where someone had his eyes closed or had a bad hair day -- and let your child cut them into various bits and pieces. Then get out some glue, construction paper, and markers and have her turn the stray faces and body parts into new people, or create a fantasy picture. You might suggest a general setting such as outer space or a medieval castle, then let your child create the image.
3. Nature story.
Take a paper bag and go on a walk with your child. Try to collect at least 10 nature objects, no more than one of each thing (only one leaf, and so forth). When you get home, have your child make a story from the objects by reaching in the bag and pulling out items one by one for inspiration.
4. Big box.
You know the cliche about how a child gets a large toy for a birthday and ends up playing only with the box? Do your child the favor of skipping the toy and go straight for the box. Find a local appliance store, or buy a large, wardrobe-sized box from a moving-supply store. Set the box up in an open area in your house and let your child decide what he wants it to be -- a house, a cave, a time capsule. Provide heavy-duty markers for decoration and help your child cut windows or other shapes if he wants them.
Each person begins by drawing the head of an imaginary creature at the top of a blank sheet of paper, being sure to include a neck. When each person is done, she folds down the top of the page to leave just the edge of the neck visible, then passes the paper to the person on the left. Everyone then takes the sheet of paper just received and continues to draw a body from the neck down with arms and a middle. When this part is finished, again each artist folds her paper leaving just the bottom of the middle visible. Once more, papers are passed to the left. Players then draw the bottom part of a body, including legs, on the piece of paper just received. When done, unfold the papers to see the monsters that were jointly created.
6. Art tales.
Go to an art museum -- a small, local one is fine -- and slow down for a change. Stand in the middle of an exhibit room and have your child decide from a distance which picture he likes best. Then walk up to it and look at it closely. Ask your child to tell a story about what he sees. Encourage him with open-ended questions. Find another painting and have your child create a story that connects it with the last one.
7. Junk-drawer game.
Everyone has a junk drawer (or two or three). It could be one of those spare drawers in the kitchen or the top desk drawer in your child's room. Have your child go through one drawer and pick out a dozen of the oddest, most lost-looking small objects he can find -- the less anyone knows what the things originally came from and what they were for, the better. Get a big sheet of cardboard or poster board, some markers, and some dice, and have your child invent a game using all the found pieces. Then sit down and play together.
8. Brush-less painting.
Anyone can paint with a brush. For this activity, find things around the house that your child can paint with that aren't brushes. String will work, or odd bits of sponge, broken pencils, rubber bands, strips of yarn or fabric, apples cut in half, or even a discarded action figure or doll. Spread some newspaper on a table or the floor, lay some washable paint out in small bowls or plates, give your child a large sheet of paper (at least 18 by 24 inches), and see what develops.
9. Reinventing the solar system.
The names we use for the planets come from ancient times and relate the visible behavior of the planets in the sky to the legends and stories about the gods for whom they were named. Give your child the opportunity to rename the planets according to some other scheme. What would she name the planets if she had the chance? And why?
10. Hidden stories.
Have your child spend 15 minutes hunting around the house for three objects he either hasn't noticed or hasn't paid much attention to before. They should come from one of the common rooms of the house, not from anyone's bedroom, and they shouldn't be fragile. When time is up, have him present you with the objects one by one. Your job is to tell him a story about that object -- where it came from, who it came from, where you were when you got it, why you might have kept it, and just about anything at all. Do that for all three objects. Then have him make a story -- either with words or pictures -- that ties all three objects together.
Special thanks to Sung Harbor Cultural Center, Staten Island, NY.