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5 Ways to Develop Healthy Imagination in Your Kids

In his recent book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Dr. Anthony Esolen, a noted literature professor and translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy, wrote this:

If we have children around, and we let them be children, they will not miss entering our world. That will come soon enough, and indeed their play is part a preparation for the adult world, for better or for worse. As Saint Augustine in Confessions puts it, ‘Yet we loved to play, and this was punished in us by men who did the same things themselves. However, the trivial concerns of adults are called business, while such things in children are punished by adults.’

The real danger is to ourselves: that we will look upon their world, a fallen world no doubt, but a world still touched with wonder and gratitude, and choose to allow those childlike virtues to enter our hearts.”

I have been contemplating this quote for a while in light of my own parenting efforts and I have concluded that developing imagination is not good enough in and of itself. We have to go deeper. We have to ask ourselves why we want to cultivate imagination. And we have to differentiate between healthy imagination and unhealthy imagination.

Do we want to develop imagination in our children because it will allow them to be “creative” or to “think more deeply” or so they will “do well in school”? Or do we have more noble – more human – goals in minds, goals Esolen speaks to in this passage above?

The truly healthy imagination is one which allows a child to see with wonder and gratitude, which cultivates in them an ability to see the world in the vibrant colors of awe and wonder instead of the sepia tones of modern cynicism, which provides for them a canvas upon which they can paint with the unadulterated joy of seeing for the first time.

Of course we should help our kids develop creativity and the ability to think deeply and a desire to work hard enough to do well in school. But a student with a healthy imagination, who looks at the world around him with awe and wonder and joy will naturally become creative, thoughtful, and hard working. So it’s up to us, as parents and teachers, to provide an environment in which that awe, and wonder and joy can grow. Have you ever tried planting tomatoes in a bed of rock?

To that end, here are some suggestions:

1) Let kids play with toys that aren’t toys (like pots and pans).

This is terrifying, I know. It’s going to be loud. You might get a headache. And it will definitely be messy. But it’s worth it, if you can stand it.

My son, Coulter, who recently turned three, is obsessed with “cooking”. Every evening he climbs up on a chair and “helps” me make dinner. He gets a pot from the cabinet and dumps in some seasonings and oil and whatever else might be around and he goes to town. After a while, he turns to me and says something like, “I made a butter pie for you and mommy” or “look, its a roast chicken”. It’s super cute and maybe one day he’ll be a chef, but neither of these things are the point, exactly.

When kids play with things that aren’t designed specifically for them – and that, therefore, don’t cater to their limited abilities – they are forced to do two things: 1) imitate and 2) re-imagine. Coulter knows that a pot is for food and he learned that quickly. But he doesn’t yet know what that means. I have to resist the urge to tell him “boy, that’s not what that’s for” or “hey, you’re spilling my olive oil”. I do try to teach him as I go, a bit at a time, but it’s also important that he learn for himself what happens when he pours too quickly or when he combines room-temperature butter with water, or what it smells like to combine smoked paprika with, well, anything.

Not only will learning these things help him eventually learn to cook well, they also will force his imagination to make connections between things, they will teach his imagination to learn “if/then” equations. And the more he imitates, a bit at a time, the more his imagination will develop.

Limits are important, and so are rules. But where you can, let your kids play with more than the toys designed for them.

2) Play a role as a character in their imaginings. Don’t worry what you look like.

Somewhere in my family’s archives (read: every scrapbook anyone owns) there is a photo of my late grandfather standing next to his pool, shirt off so that a magnificent swatch of snow-white chest hair is revealed, beach towel draped over his shoulder, and the most outlandish white cowboy hat on his equally white head. I’m telling you, this hat is bad. My brother and I are leaning against him, each of us draped in our own colorful towels, our wet hair plastered to our heads, and we’re all laughing, joyfully taking in the absurdity of the scene. It’s a wonderful photo and I’ll cling to it forever.

It’s also a snapshot of my childhood. My grandfather – as well as my parents and so many of my other adult relatives – never much concerned themselves with what they looked like around us. In fact, I think they sort of reveled in their oddities. Grandpa, for example, would wear this funky Austrian vest, over a short-sleeved Oxford, along with shorts, nearly knee-high socks, and dirty, white tennis shoes. He knew he looked goofy but he was okay with it and he played to it (and in it).

He and grandma, in turn, bought us Cowboy gear and knights outfits and, with my parents, encouraged us to make up our own costumes. If you haven’t seen a five year old in a combination George Washington-Wayne Gretzky outfit you haven’t lived. Talk about post-modern. This is the sort of thing we wore as grandpa chased us around the yard or as mom made us our Cowboy breakfasts. And out of these silly costumes came our most vivid imaginings, scenes I’ll likely remember until I die. They taught me to revel in the joy of imagining, to sink deeply into the craziness of the worlds we invented, to come up only for air (or maybe, occasionally, for a sandwich).

Whether you’re dressing up with your kids or chasing them around the house like a Belrog, your purposeful engagement in the world of their imaginations is key. If you create an environment in which their imaginations can be fed then their imaginations will create worlds in which their souls can find joy.

3) Let them consume only the media you are okay with them imitating.

I’m not against TV. In fact, I quite like it. I have several shows I like to watch semi-regularly, and I am fascinated by the history of television as an art-form. And, in moderation, I think it can be of great value for kids.

I have noticed in particular that Coulter’s imagination has responded quite insightfully to some of the shows he occasionally gets to watch, such as Winnie the Pooh, whose many characters he loves to imitate. Mostly, he likes to imitate their various voices. He has watched a show about a girl who is a doctor (not sure what it’s called) and he likes to play doctor with his brother and friends. He’s learned what that looks like and therefore has something to imitate. And that’s the key: kids will naturally imitate what they see, which is why what you let them see is so important.

Let them watch things you want them to imitate, characters you don’t mind them wanting to be. And make sure those things you do let them watch don’t exist simply because they are flashy and interesting to look at. You shouldn’t do that for yourself and you certainly shouldn’t do it for your kids. Be discerning with the media you let them consume because what they consume they will become.

4) This goes for lesson-based media too. They don’t need morals spelled out as clearly as you might think.

Remember Adventures in Odyssey? My siblings and I owned something like 31 volumes of the series ( on cassette tapes, of course) and they were were our entertainment during countless hours driving from Idaho to Wisconsin every summer.

Recently, I listened to a few episodes to try to recapture the magic again. It was still there, mostly, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reliving my childhood. But there’s one fatal flaw with that series: the end of every episode. The host, a woman named Chris, comes on and explains the moral to the story. The producers believed, I guess, that kids wouldn’t get the point if they weren’t directly told what it was.

This is problematic because it’s important for the development of the moral imagination that children learn to grapple on their own with the themes of a story, that they be allowed to ask questions and think deeply about what they see/hear/read in a story.

To paraphrase David Hicks, it’s the mark of a bad teacher to answer a question that hasn’t been asked. This kind of simplistic didacticism eliminates the need for young listeners to do that deep thinking and question-asking and grappling. Your job is to guide that thinking, to answer their questions. It’s not to tell them what to think or what questions to ask.

5) Let them work through boredom so their imaginations are forced to exercise.

If young children are going to learn to work through the malaise that we call boredom we have to let them wallow in it for a while – sometimes on their own. Children are naturally curious; they make connections between things we adults miss and they ask questions so great that even Socrates would be proud. So when it seems like there is nothing to do the one thing we shouldn’t ever do is let them think it’s true. The moment we suggest that boredom is a thing worth acknowledging is the moment a child begins to lose her sense of wonder. But when the sense that “there’s nothing to do” begins to set in, we shouldn’t just say “well, go play with toys or read a book or punch your brother.”

We can questions to get their imaginations going: we can ask about their stuffed animals or their imaginary friends (unless the kid is 14, that might be weird); we can ask them to tell us a story or two while they help us do chores. We can ask them to go dress up in whatever outfit they want to wear. We can ask them to look for birds out the window or to count the number of colors they see outside in the yard. And sometimes we can even put on the TV and ask them to explain the adventure the characters in the show went on. If the child is old enough to read we can even ask them to read a favorite book aloud to us as we prepare dinner or fold laundry.

Whatever solution we count on, we need to feed their sense of wonder; at all costs we must avoid diminishing it. It’s one of the things that makes our kids worth imitating (as Jesus suggested) and it’s the chief way they learn to worship their creator.

This post was first published by our friends at Story Warren.

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