Articles and Topics
Cultivating the Imagination
Recently, a mother asked me about ways of encouraging her bright 4-year-old to develop his imagination. “When I tell him to use his imagination,” she said, “he tells me that he doesn’t have one.” His reply is probably just a ploy he’s using to get his mother off his back. But if not, and if he truly believes he doesn’t have an imagination, he couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, if he knows and can use the word “imagination,” he has it.

Think about it a minute: Can you see, hear, touch or taste imagination? Of course not. It isn’t something that is based on the senses, something concrete that can be verified by experience. Rather it is an abstract idea, something based on ideas, something that involves a recombination of information provided by the senses. Use of the imagination requires manipulation, rearrangement and construction of ideas. It involves the ability to see things in a different way or to put old visions into a new format.

This is not to suggest that a rich sensory experience is not important if we are to help our children cultivate the imagination. Indeed, it is very important. Imagine for a moment that you are the first person ever to build a bridge over water. To “imagine” such a structure, you probably would have to have seen some sort of improvised path, maybe nothing more than logs pushed together. But you would also need to have seen vertical supports—tree trunks, perhaps—pushed into the ground to help hold up an improvised shelter in the trees. Suddenly you put those two visual experiences together with the aid of an idea that comes to you without benefit of sensory input. “Hey. Maybe we can build a path that would take us over the water.” That is imagination at work. Scientists use it to develop their ideas before they test them experimentally, and artists use it to put their stamp on their creations.

Certainly we want our children to develop fertile imaginations. And as parents and teachers, we want to help in the process. So do toy manufacturers like Fisher-Price®, whose designers realize that opportunity to play is a necessary component in the process.

For the development of the imagination, play is like the yeast in bread. It’s the essential ingredient for the imagination to rise. Remember, rarely must a child be coaxed into play—it comes with the territory of childhood. And one of the nicest things about helping in the process is that it is also fun for parents.

I have three suggestions to offer regarding ways we can help. They involve the play materials we supply our children, the methods of play we encourage and the time we protect for such activities in today’s hectic schedules.

1. Provide diverse types of play materials. In providing toys for young children, offer some that have targeted learning goals and some that don’t require a specific right action or answer. Examples of the former would be puzzles (each piece goes in only one place) and many video games. Examples of toys that encourage open-ended or unstructured play are dolls, housekeeping toys, blocks and cars.

Because of the concern for getting children ready for formal learning in kindergarten, both parents and teachers place a great deal of emphasis on targeted-learning toys. That is all well and good and important, but it shouldn’t overshadow the need to provide toys that allow the child to bring her own ideas to the playing field.

When your child engages in open-ended play with toys intended for closed-end play—like taking puzzle pieces and stacking them, or arranging them so they look like a car—resist the temptation to ask, “What is that?” Or, even worse, “Why can’t you play with your puzzle the way it was meant to be used?” If you walk by, ask casually, “Tell me about that.” If you’re like me, you won’t want to miss an opportunity to voice a principle. So you might add, “Those puzzle pieces can be used in different ways, can’t they?” And, if they almost never get returned to the puzzle holder, say something like, “When you finish that project, why don’t you see if you can put the puzzle pieces together and back into the board.”

2. Encourage different methods of play. Much of the play that encourages imagination will be done alone, and this is important. So are opportunities for children to play together, as such play frequently involves imaginative activities. But don’t rule out the importance of your own occasional participation in your child’s play activities.

For example, suppose your son or daughter has laid a roadbed of blocks and is pretending to fill the gas tank of a small automobile. You might ask, “How much are they charging for gas today? Do you think you could get it cheaper down the street?” Such questioning will probably lead to the making of a second service station or a long speech about the bargain at the existing one. You might even offer to supply slips of paper to advertise the gas price.

If the activity is a tea party for dolls, ask if you can attend. When given a cup of make-believe tea, ask if you can have lemon or sugar. Or, act as though the tea is so hot that it burned your lips. That kind of interaction stimulates further thought about the pretend activity.

Parents can also add this kind of enrichment when reading to their children. If you read a story about a lion, growl and look ferocious and invite your child to do the same. If reading a story about a girl in a big city who takes a bus to the library, ask, “What kind of books do you think she’ll check out?” “What would happen if she took the wrong bus when she starts for home?” Such questions generate new internal ideas, which broaden imaginative horizons.

3. Make certain that the daily schedule allows time for imaginative play. There’s no question that imaginative play gets short shrift in today’s families and schools. Many 4- and 5-year-olds come home from childcare or preschool with homework. It’s hard to find time to go into the backyard and swing high, pretending to be a bird, when you have to finish two sheets of letters and number exercises before supper. Furthermore, to accomplish that work without merely reinforcing errors, it’s probably necessary to have either mom or dad—also with limited time—par in the process. So it’s up to parents to value unstructured play enough to make certain that the daily schedule accommodates it.

If your child should ever assert with dismay, “I don’t have any imagination,” make a point to respond with an optimistic “Of course you do.” You might want to supply other words, like “pretend” or “make believe.” But, more important than an acceptable label are the provisions—the materials and time you provide and the methods you develop that allow the imagination to flourish.

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education