The pair of them stood there, giggling, eyes wide with excitement. I half-smiled as I asked what they wanted, thinking their request probably had something to do with a sweet snack since I was standing in the kitchen.
“Mommy, we want to play Cinderella,” my oldest daughter announced with all the enthusiasm of a nearly five-year-old.
I should have known they would bring a princess into it, given that Naomi and her younger sister, Leah, loved all things princess-y. “Okay,” I answered cautiously. “What does that mean?”
The two girls exchanged glances, then Naomi said, “We want to wash the kitchen floor.”
“Yeah,” three-year-old Leah chimed in, nodding her head vigorously, “so we can pretend the evil stepmother made us work hard.”
Smothering a laugh, I reached for a small plastic bowl, filled it with water, added two rags, then let them play Cinderella on their hands and knees on the kitchen floor.
Ah, the power of an active imagination that can turn a “chore” into a fantasy game. Those two washed that kitchen floor more times than I can remember during their princess phase (which also include roping their younger brothers into being princes). Over the years, their pretend play has morphed into cops and robbers, pirates, hopping ball Olympics, great escapes, and a host of other creative and silly storylines. Even now, my four kids (ages 6, 8, 10 and 12) engage in elaborate pretenses involving numerous elements and rules.
While some parents might view such shenanigans as non-productive, recent studies suggest that pretend play benefits a child in more ways than previously thought. For example, one Psychology Today article said that such play enhances cognitive abilities, such as language usage, and the “theory of mind,” which helps us realize others have different thoughts and perspectives than we do. Playing dress up and made-up games provides a safe learning environment where kids pick up social and emotional skills, as well as a better thinking ability.
Many of the studies focus on the preschool and early elementary school years as crucial to the development of pretend play, but I think the benefits of encouraging fantasy in our kids goes beyond age 6. For example, my fifth grader has to write a paper on a family event, which she has tackled with ease given her strong storytelling skills honed by her continued pretend play.
Pretending also helps children manage what-if situations, such as if I was captured by pirates, what would I do? Thinking through improbable situations can assist children in handling real world problems with less frustration and anxiety.
The good news is that you can still help your child reach his imagination potential, no matter how old he is. Here are 6 ways you can encourage his imagination development.
- Unplug the electronics. No matter how “educational” a program or app is, watching a screen requires very little in the way of brain power for any child. With the screen doing the work for her, she has no reason to fire up her own imagination. Instead of setting strict screen time limits, try having “screen-free” time zones, such as starting at suppertime and extending until bedtime for young children. For teens, perhaps all electronic devices go into the basket at 8 p.m. The less screen time your child has, the more his imagination will have room to soar.
- Get outside. With warm weather on the horizon—and the fresh, clean hint of spring in the air—kicking the kids outside more shouldn’t be too difficult. Nature provides a wonderful way for children and teens to find peace and purpose. As Richard Louv puts it in his excellent book, Last Child in the Woods, “nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses.” Fresh air, sunshine, the world waking up with the renewing cycle of spring all conspire to push a child’s inventiveness to fruition.
- Read good books. While we often read to our preschoolers, sometimes that drops off as the children age. Even older children and teens enjoy hearing stories, so grab some interesting books and dive in. Pick ones that challenge and invigorate their minds, ones that paint spectacular word pictures and show them a world beyond the four walls of their life. Some suggestions include Little House on the Prairie, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, Because of Winn-Dixie, The Count of Monte Cristo, Tom Sawyer and Jane Eyre. Ask your local librarian for titles that lend themselves well to reading aloud.
- Join in the fun. Sometimes, you have to help your child’s imagination along by playing with him. Jump in and wave your magic “wand” to turn everyone into animals, then plan an escape from the zoo to have a tea party with fairies. Or walk the plank and find a new adventure under the sea. One note of caution: after setting up the initial scene, take your cues from the kids and play along with their storylines. After 10 minutes or so, ease back and quietly exit the stage, leaving the play to the kids.
- Provide the proper tools. Empty boxes, building supplies (LEGOs, blocks, magnet tiles, etc.), blank paper and pastel chalk, and other non-electronically powered toys that can double or triple as something else are keys to imaginative play. Kids can use a box to build an airplane or a submarine, a rocket or a space ship. Building materials morph into skyscrapers and prisons, while blank paper can be transformed into crowns or scenery. The possibilities are endless with the right tools and a bit of creativity.
- Give them time. Organized sports and other activities are great, but not if a child is so involved with after school things he has no time left to play. One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is time of his own. Time that he can spend being a kid, thinking about nothing and everything, playing with friends or by himself. That unstructured time can be a huge blessing—and a surefire way to spur creative thought and play.
Above all, remember that when your children are pretending, they’re not wasting time—they are building strong imagination muscles, solidifying language paths, exploring new territory and forging possible identities. Our role as parents in this exploration is to make sure they have the time and space in which to soar to heights unknown.