The Importance of Imagination: How to Fire Up a Fancy for Fantasy

We were under siege. A deluge of rain had stranded our little family indoors like a shipwreck. To make matters worse, I was sick. A miserable, sniffling kind of sick that felt as if I were wading through fog. Ivan was in his room, sneezing and coughing his way through the same illness. I bent my head over a steaming mug of tea, attempting to breathe deeply and clear the congestion.

“No. I am not playing that again. Dad!”

“Hmm…” I wondered if my voice sounded as muffled as it felt, as if I were swimming to the surface from beneath a sea of blankets.

“Dad!” Naomi came tearing into the kitchen, her sister close behind.

“I am right here.” I said it slowly, my eyes closed. Every word of it was an effort.

“I will not play Go Fish one more time, Dad. No way.” Naomi folded her arms over her chest and glared at Maya.

Maya’s lower lip began to quiver. “But I like Go Fish.” It was a whine, long and petulant and just on the edge of tears. It was obvious that if I didn’t intervene quickly, this was headed somewhere I didn’t want to go. Not today.

“Why don’t you two play something different? What about doing a watercolor painting?” I suggested.

Naomi’s response was swift. “Did that yesterday. And we drew stuff this morning, too.”

“Blocks? Paper dolls? Play-Doh?”

Naomi was unimpressed. “Play-Doh, Dad. Really?”

Maya interrupted. “We did dolls and blocks yesterday too. Nothing to do.” She gestured at the windowpane and the wet, windy world outside.

“Well, what about the puppet game?”

The girls looked puzzled. “We don’t have puppets, Dad.”

I nodded. “That’s why you have to use your imagination. You know, that thing that you don’t exercise much.”

Naomi snorted. “I am not playing invisible puppets, Dad.”

“Not invisible,” I responded defensively, looking injured. “It’s a game. I’ll show you.”

Imaginative play stimulates children’s senses and allows them to explore and think creatively. It is also important for developing key skills that are essential for emotional and social growth and success.

Sometimes, our memories of being children are a little hazy. But we all recall being masters of imagination. Whether it was crawling through the grass as a stalking tiger or jumping from cushion to cushion to escape an invisible lava flow, we learned to give our minds free rein to explore and create a fantasy. Exercising imagination is a crucial component of childhood for several reasons. Imaginative play:

  • Builds self-confidence
  • Increases self-awareness
  • Helps develop self-control
  • Encourages creative thinking
  • Improves memory and language
  • Teaches cooperation and compromise
  • Develops social skills that will ensure healthy relationships with friends and peers
  • Encourages participation in social activities and understanding of social relationships

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.” — Dr. Seuss

I returned a few minutes later, box in hand, and extended it to the girls.

“Here you go,” I exclaimed cheerfully.

Naomi and Maya began riffling through the contents, giggling a little.

“What the heck, Dad!” Naomi looked up at me with laughter in her eyes. “A box of raisins? Plastic sea animals?”

Maya pulled a piece of green felt from the box. “What are we going to do with this?”

I shrugged. “Who knows? You’ll have to use your imagination. That’s the challenge. You take a box of completely random things and see if you can make a puppet show out of it. Create a story around this stuff and then act it out.”

As I exited the room, I heard the murmur of voices behind me as the girls dug further into the box, rummaging around at the bottom to discover the rest of the treasures I had deposited there. I grinned to myself. I couldn’t wait to see what they would come up with.

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” — Albert Einstein

Looking for a few ways to fire up your kid’s imagination? Try one of these tips.

  • Tell stories: Spin a yarn of your own or get input from your kids and build a fantasy together.
  • Read books: Books can be a great jumping-off point to explore worlds and invent new games. Fashion a few props based on the pages and away you go.
  • Make art together: Collaborate on a picture or make one in stages, with each person adding something new to the piece. In the end, you’ll have something inventive that no one would have imagined on their own.
  • Use materials from nature: Sticks are not just sticks and leaves can be so much more. Encourage kids to go outside and make nature part of their play, their art, and their story.
  • Open-ended toys: In article #2, “Keeping Kids Brains Keen,” I discussed the power of blocks and other such toys that allow kids to create their own visions. Choose open-ended toys that offer structure without specifics.
  • Let them create their own visuals: Get out the recycling box and the art supplies and step back. Once they have something in mind, kids will blow you away with what they manage to adapt to their purposes. You just need to supply the materials; they’ll bring the imagination.

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.” —  Carl Sagan

I was lying in bed, pretending to nap, a book open on my chest. Two little faces peered over the edge of the covers.

“Daddy,” Maya whispered. “Are you sleeping?”

I opened one eye. “Nope.”

“We have something all figured out.” Naomi looked ready to burst from excitement. “But we need a stage. Otherwise, it’s not really a puppet show. ’Cause you can see our heads and everything.”

I gingerly eased myself out of bed. “I believe we have an enormous box from when we bought that new television. I’m pretty sure I’ve been saving it for just such an occasion.”

There was cheering. I hobbled toward the door and then paused.

“How about this? I’ll go get the box and help you cut it up. You two work to fancy it up and then give me a call when the show is ready. We can even record it on my phone.”

A half hour later, I poked my head around Ivan’s door.

“Puppet show. Living room. Five minutes. I’ll make popcorn.”

It was a rainy afternoon. And I felt pretty terrible. But there was dancing and singing and a lot of laughter. And popcorn. I’m not sure I could have imagined a better time.

Want a few of your own imagination games to play? Check out these suggestions.

  1. Nature Scavenger Hunt

Print out a list or even just a few clip art pictures of items to look for. Then hit the park, the woods, or even just the backyard. When your little scavengers have crossed off all the items on the list, ask them to take each item and tell a story about it. You’ll be surprised at what they come up with!

  1. Box It Up

Forts, houses, tunnels, ships, castles, planes, and more! Find a big box from a local appliance store or save one from a recent purchase. Set it up in an open area and let your children decide what this magical bit of cardboard will be. Give them some things to decorate it with, and if they want to cut out windows or other things, lend some help with the scissors. Watch the cardboard transformation unfold.

  1. Imaginary Creatures

Cooperate to create an imaginary creature! Ask one of your kids to draw a head; the wackier, the better. Then he or she passes it to another family member, and so on. Each person gets a chance to draw a different part of the creature. First comes the head, then the neck, the body, arms, legs, and even tails. Use crayons and give these body parts unusual colors too. A creative creature you’d never imagine will emerge.

  1. Collage Creations

Round up some old magazines or photos, a pair of scissors, and some glue. No, you’re not teaching a workshop on how to create a ransom letter. Encourage kids to cut and paste their way to something unusual. They can follow a theme or simply go for unusual juxtapositions and piece together some imaginative art.

  1. Invent a Story

Print out an intriguing image of artwork from your computer. Have your children create a story around that picture. They can either tell it verbally or write it down. Then find another, unrelated image and encourage them to create another story and connect it somehow to the first one. This sparks some significant activity when it comes to logic and problem-solving skills.

  1. Find the Junk

Kids love digging through drawers and cupboards, banging and bashing along the way. Go on the hunt around your house and let your child pick out some strange-looking object that they don’t recognize. The less they know about it, the better. Ask them to invent a description of what the object does and what it is used for.  This is how inventors are born!

  1. Messy Art

Encourage your kid to make a mess. Seriously. The more splotches and weird shapes, the more opportunity for creativity. To make it even more exciting, your child should try to use various materials to create art. How about some foil dipped in paint, fingers and hands, sponges, potatoes, toys, rubber bands, or anything else you can find? Get crafty and clever. You might stumble upon the next major impressionist.

  1. Story Time

This is similar to “Find the Junk” but with a storyteller’s twist. Gather items that your children may not know much about. Rather than strange devices, focus on mementos, knickknacks, or personal items like clothing. Sit down together and have your children pull each item out of the box and develop a story about its origin. Later, if they’re curious, you can explain the real story behind the item. Although to be fair, it’s likely to be less awesome than the imaginary one.

  1. Book Bonanza

Read a book together that is age-appropriate. Once you’re read it, ask your child to tell you who his or her favorite characters were and why. Also, ask your child to think about a story that would follow the book: what will happen next, who the characters will be, and what they’ll be doing. Let them create their own magical sequels to their favorite stories.

Fire up your children’s imagination and watch their fancy for fantasy take flight. You’ll be ensuring inventive, creative little brains geared for success.


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