When our children are toddlers and preschool aged, a parent rarely needs to do anything to encourage imaginative play. They don’t need to be taught how to become a unicorn or how to fight a giant. As kids get older, however, something changes. Playing pretend and using imagination becomes, as famed science fiction writer Ursula LeGuin put it, “something that might be useful when the TV is out of order.”
So, how do we encourage our older elementary and middle school kids to continue to stretch their imagination muscles?
As with a lot of parenting, the best course of action is to provide them tools and then step out of the way. My oldest child is nine. I cannot pretend to be an expert in all things “big kid” yet, but these are some of the tools that our family finds essential to imagination exercise. Here are 3 easy ways to encourage imagination in kids!
Playing dress-up is often something we think of as a game for small kids. The huge population of adult cosplayers around the world, however, would beg to differ. Even big kids love to pretend they are other people. When a party store down the street announced they were closing, I bought several costumes for each of our kids. My oldest got a super cool Top Gun flight suit for his birthday that I don’t think he took off for two days. Halloween is coming. Check after the holiday for discounted masks, hats, or things that would appeal to the interests of your older child. Maybe they won’t dress like Batman anymore, but a magician’s top hat might be just the thing for a kid learning card tricks for the first time.
It may seem obvious, but it cannot be overstated how important outdoor play is for a child’s imagination. Everything in nature can be something else. A stick can be a sword for a brave knight, a walking stick for a wilderness explorer, or a giant pencil for Thumblina. A big rock might be a sleeping dragon or a place to hide from the zombie hoard. Being outdoors is completely open-ended play. If your backyard has become somewhere the kids have explored as much as possible, take them somewhere new. We are fortunate to live in a city with so many different kids of natural areas to explore.
I know! I know! I just said to “get out of the way”. I did mean it…sort of. When they are off on an adventure, you should absolutely leave them to it, but if they are still struggling with creative thinking and imaginative activities, it’s okay to give a little help. One of the most fun things to do with kids this age is to ask them “what if…” and follow them where that question takes them.
“What would you do if we discovered our house was haunted? What would happen if you found out our pet dog could talk? What is the craziest recipe you can think of?”
Hint: If you have a kid like mine, the more opportunity for the answer to be gross…the better they will like it.
Perhaps your kids are not like mine, and they will need different encouragement to reawaken their wonder in the world or to leave reality behind for a bit. The tools I listed are a lot less essential than our attitudes.
Be flexible about mess when they are having an adventure. (At this age, they can generally be held responsible for cleaning afterward, but don’t worry about clutter they create while inspired.)
Let them see how you use imaginative thinking as an adult. Do you daydream? Do you wonder? Talk about it!
Lastly, point out other older kids and adults who are creative. Creativity sometimes shows up in obvious ways like cooking interesting meals or having an interesting fashion sense. Sometimes it’s the seemingly dry family member who is an engineer that loves to find new ways to do things. It might be their “tall tale” telling Grandpa. All of those require a strong imagination muscle and may help encourage these older kids to remember that being creative is not just “for babies”.