A child’s imagination is a true gift. In addition to being a driver of fun and play, it’s also key to their future success. “Helping children understand that they can dream up new things, make things and create things is really powerful, and it’s going to help them go far in our rapidly changing world,” says Colin Reynolds, TinkerLab curator at Bennett Day School in Chicago.
Here are nine ways to fire up your child’s imagination.
Model curiosity for your kids
Wondering aloud and being curious about the world around you can be a great way to model imagination for your kids and to get their imaginations going at the same time. “Being insatiably curious and talking out loud about it gets kids in the habit of doing that,” says Reynolds. He says that simple sentences like “I wonder what goes in that big building? What do you think the people in there are doing?” gets creative juices flowing.
Some children don’t automatically know how to imagine or find it easy to do, and Reynolds says that seeing a parent model it by maintaining sense of wonder and asking lots of questions can help. Another tip: don’t automatically go to your phone for a quick, concrete answer. “Wonder first,” advises Reynolds. “You can look anything up any time but it ends the thought process. Guessing about what actually might be true or not is fun, and it’s a great exercise for kids.”
Poems by favorites like Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky and classic Dr. Seuss can be a great way to get kids’ imaginations going, both about whimsical ways of seeing the world and the wonders of language, word play and pattern. “In just a few minutes, poems can help the readers or listener think about things a little differently,” says Reynolds.
Take things apart
Disassembling can be a great way to see how things are made and to inspire kids to use their imaginations to repurpose the parts into a brand-new creation. Reynolds suggests having kids repurpose old toys and materials for new adventures.
Play games and play with puzzles
Reynolds is a big fan of chess because it’s all about thinking ahead and asking “what if” but not in a pressured way. Lots of games can ignite the imagination. “Games are great for problem solving and they open up a whole world of conversation and dialogue that lets what is buried in the mind come to the surface,” explains Reynolds.
Cube puzzles can be assembled in many different ways, teaching kids that there is not just one way to reach the goal, and encourages problem solving skills and literally looking at things from different angles.
Cardboard and duct tape
Boxes are great imagination fuelers. Whether you’re sealing them with tape and using them as big blocks, hopping in them for an imaginary trip to Mars or using them as construction material, they can be a ton of fun. Reynolds says that the boxes were the first thing 4-year-olds gravitated to at Bennett’s recent Builders Paradise event.
With duct tape, the possibilities are as endless as their imagination. Reynolds also recommends a Makedo kit, which can include safety saws and screws just for cardboard, can be a great way to give children a chance to build and create.
Subscribe to fun magazines
Reynolds recommends having a few magazine subscriptions for kids and making it a point to read and talk about them together. He likes National Geographic Kids and Make magazine. “Discuss what’s in there that it is interesting or different. Kids can not only offer their thoughts, they can get ideas and inspiration,” says Reynolds. As an additional bonus, kids can later cut up the magazines to make collages.
While it can be tempting to turn kids loose with no limits, that’s not always most helpful to your kids. “Setting parameters around experiences is best for the child,” Reynolds advises. He says that limits on time and materials (some of the Legos instead of all the Legos) can are particularly beneficial to kids under 7 who don’t think as abstractly as older kids do. He also suggests giving kids prompts or challenging them to solve a particular problem.
In his TinkerLab at Bennett, Reynolds introduces only one new material at a time. “Giving guidelines helps the child and allows them to not be overwhelmed and to channel their thinking,” he adds.
The natural world is full of wonder and can be a great way to ignite a child’s imagination, whether you go for a family walk along the lake, hike at Starved Rock State Park or head to a nature center. Chances are you will make some memories along the way, too.
Engage with your children
Children love when parents engage with them, and Reynolds encourages the use of phrases like “what about this” and “yes, and.” He says, “Embracing kids’ crazy ideals and unrealistic scenarios is how you encourage imagination.”