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Leave the Door Open

In last month’s column, I made a case for saving our children’s imagination—the mother of creativity and essential academic skills. While imagination is innate, we must exercise it just as we do our muscles and intellect.

Unfortunately, the time and tools for that are under attack and the threats are real and persistent. Increased state testing and mandates have chipped away at the curricula of districts and the choice of teachers. Outside the classroom, our children’s time is stretched thin by sports, music lessons, religious commitments and other activities. As a result, our children have limited time to play and imagine.

Parents, too, are busier than ever. It’s overwhelming to think of adding one more task to our overflowing plates. Perhaps, however, nurturing imagination is something we can slip easily into our everyday life.

Let them invent the tools. You do not need to buy an expensive princess tent or motorized Jeep in the name of role play. In fact, that may allow someone else’s imagination to do the work for your children. Instead, repurpose what you already have. My daughter’s diaper boxes became the building blocks of forts, castles and tunnels. Old tablecloths draped across piles of cushions become an archaeologist’s home base. Paper plates become burners on a stove or wheels on a bus. Socks become puppets. Dried beans in sealed containers become instruments.

Ditch right-answer toys. Phones that screech numbers and tablets that cheer when a “right” letter is pressed are just managers. Still, there are toys that spark imagination: building blocks; trains with flexible tracks; play dough; dress-up clothes; instruments; cameras; binoculars and magnifying glasses; and kid-sized versions of hammers and construction hats, doctor’s kits, garden gloves and trowels, and play food (or empty food containers).

Turn off screens. I love a good movie, and when we’re sick, we can definitely log impressive hours in front of the television. Still, overall, I try not to let it become the “go-to” in small pockets of time or moments of boredom because what we watch is the result of someone else’s imagination, not ours. And when you do watch, ask questions: What are some other ways you might try to sell that product? What if this show was from the mother’s perspective?

Read. When we read, we construct the images that the author creates and become inspired to create our own stories as well. When we talk about books with our children, we can raise questions about the author and story: What are some reasons she chose this beginning? What are some other endings we could invent?

Tell stories together. On your next car ride, tell a tale where each person says a sentence to build a story. On your next lazy Sunday, pile onto the couch and each person whispers a word to a storyteller who attempts to weave the words into a single narrative. Afterward, try and guess the given words. At dinner, try telling a moment from the day as a story.

On a rainy afternoon, play Paper Telephone: Each person folds a paper accordion-style and writes a strange sentence. You then pass the paper to the right, and that person draws an illustration of the sentence. When he passes to the right again, he folds the paper so only the illustration shows. Then the next person writes a sentence to go with the illustration and so on. The tales you create together are sure to lead to laughs and memories.

Mimic masters. Show paintings by artists who weren’t afraid to see the world their way. Van Gogh shows us that skies don’t need to look still and Picasso proves that faces don’t need to appear symmetrical. Perhaps your child will see the grass as purple and feet as wheels.

Create imaginative zones. Paper a hallway, and watch graffiti bloom. Hang a clothesline, tack up a sheet, and create a curtained stage. A friend emptied a closet, hung Christmas lights, and lined the floor with pillows to create a reading nook. Are there underused areas in your house you might reimagine?

Flip it. One day when I was driving with my daughter, a man drove through a stop sign. I threw up my hands, the man stopped, I moved, and the man pulled out again. Throughout, I ranted about his horrible driving. A few minutes later, however, I realized this wasn’t what I wanted to teach my daughter. We talked about how we never know what’s going on for someone else. We made up stories about why he might be in a rush and laughed when we decided he probably had an octopus in his back seat. Now, when we see someone behave poorly, we don’t excuse it but we do invent explanations. This builds empathy as well as imagination.

Model. Start your children off by showing how you use your imagination. Use a funny accent as you get the kids ready for school. Place a hard hat on your head when you clean. Translate the conversations between the trees when the wind blows.

Many of these suggestions are ones that your children can—and should—do independent of you. Invite your children to imagine with you but also encourage them to enjoy it without your direction, intervention or even praise.

In their over-structured worlds, it’s good for kids to direct the fun. When they imagine, they develop the skills they need to be articulate, thoughtful, confident, resilient, independent and creative problem solvers. And the world could always do with more imagination.

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.

Photo above: © Kenishirotie | Dreamstime.com

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