The other day my grandchild was playing dress up and asked me and her grandpa to be her audience. She decided to have a fashion show, and even asked for pencil and paper so she could write down her name and give us her autograph. This image took me back to my own childhood of orchestrating plays on the back porch, playing grocery store at the kitchen table, and dress-up with old clothes in the attic.
This is the magical thinking of childhood that helps the brain develop creativity. This creativity, if allowed to blossom, is the same creativity that helps the scientist discover new cures for diseases, companies to come up with the next technological advances and inventions, and leaders to move their countries into peace.
When your child is little, under the age of two, he understands the world through his senses. But as he grows into his toddler years, and begins to understand the way things operate, he will begin to use his imagination to explain the mysteries of his world. Imaginative play is arguably the most important play your child will ever participate in... more important than all the toys, all the games, and all the things you buy for him to help him enhance his learning.
It is imaginative play that helps your child relate to his feelings and strong emotions, to gain control over his behavior, and to work through his darker thoughts and feelings of anger, fear and guilt. You may be aware of the use of dolls, for example, by therapists and mental health professionals to help children document emotional and physical abuse. Further, pets and other children, and even you, mother or father, can become an actor in your child's fantasy world. Pets, for example, give children that ally to talk to, dress up and play with, who usually listen and can be manipulated freely. Moreover, imaginative play is both stress-reducing and self-soothing, two very important remedial needs of childhood.
So the question becomes, if creative play is so important, how do you offer it to your child? Like everything else, there are rules of engagement, and you as a parent need to know the rules.
Helpful tips when encouraging imaginative play
1. Don't discount, shame or embarrass your child for his imagination, but rather, play along and be part of his fantastical world... only if invited.
2. Let children use things that are part of the house, rather than going out and buying a lot of toys. Remember the tents you built between two chairs using a sheet, or the fort you made under your bed? These are the things that really excite and stimulate the imagination... the simple things, the real things... old clothes, blocks, dolls, clay, pots, pans, beads, colored pencils, crayons, and paper that can be made into invitations, pictures, playbills, menus and so on.
3. A great way to stimulate creativity is simply to read to your child in a child-directed way, meaning to use open-ended questions to provide the opportunity for imaginative outcomes to the very story that you are reading. There are so many advantages to this, including the acquisition of language and the enhancement of IQ.
4. The most important thing about creative play is that it should be free play; let your child take the lead. He will let you know if he needs private time, or if he wants you to be a participant in his scenario - but, you should be around. If you're not wanted, you don't have to engage, but you do have to be there to supervise if a problem arises. You have to create a safe and rich contained environment, so that you can be there if needed, without interfering if not included.
5. Finally, bedtime is actually a wonderful time for deepening the imagination, so leave enough time in the bedtime schedule for that to occur. The bedtime ritual should include a little reading from mom or dad that can spur a child's imagination, before he falls off to sleep. Twilight time, when a child is in that soft space between awake and asleep, is a wonderful time for him to use his imagination, and nighttime stories help direct that experience.
Now that you have some general guidelines, here are some specific ideas that you can do to spur your child's imagination based on his age.
From birth to 3 years old
Create a print-rich environment with objects to manipulate, touch, observe and interact with, that are age-appropriate, including pots, pans, socks, beads, playdough, and musical instruments. Don't use Playdough or beads until your child is old enough, since both can be choking hazards.
From 3-6 years old
Now your child can play with little purses that are old and ready to be cast away, old hats, old shoes, plastic cups and dishes, paper, arts and crafts, clay, dolls, doctor's kits, toy cars, and blocks and beads. If asked to join in, you can turn play into an adventure: the couch becomes a raft, the kitchen floor is your island, and so on.
From 6-10 years old
Imaginative play becomes more sophisticated, and children are into playing house, school, and other fantasies using dress-up costumes, including tiaras and magic wands, and sheets for super-hero capes, tents and forts. Legos, blocks, clay, cars, paints, crayons and other school supplies are useful tools. Also provide your child with arts and crafts materials that allow him to color his dreams and write his stories, bringing his imagination into his conscious world.
You will be creative until the day you die, whether it's simply daydreaming, or writing, painting, listening to music... all of the inventions that have brought us to this place and time are as a result of someone's imagination, so it is important to give your child a safe place to foster the associations in the brain that allow for the development of inspiration, the stimulation necessary for problem-solving, and the "a-ha moment," when complicated ideas take form.