Imagination: 4 Ways to Build It in Kids

Imaginative play isn’t just for preschoolers. Here’s how to spark your child’s imagination.

Emily Veno
April 11, 2023

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Imaginative play isn’t just for preschoolers. Here’s how to spark your child’s imagination.

Walk through an average American preschool, and you’ll probably see the typical signs of creative play: a dress-up area, full of costumes and accessories; a toy kitchen, restaurant or fruit and vegetable market; a circus tent or a fort; containers full of building blocks, Legos and playdough. In addition to carpet time and outdoor play, kids will spend hours of their day in these centers, having fun as they hone their fine motor skills, social skills, and problem-solving skills.

But the minute you cross the threshold into an elementary school, the signs of creative play thin out. According to journalist and young-adult author Katherine Marsh, even the beloved classroom ‘read aloud’ has been squeezed out of existence in favor of teach-for-the-test bite-sized engagements with books. The result? Fewer children falling in love with literature — one of the classic arenas in which children’s imagination has always flourished.

With a heavy emphasis on testing and grade-level standards, teachers don’t have enough hours in the school day to devote to playtime, despite the fact  researchers are starting to recognize that the benefits to child development aren’t just limited to young children: when we let a child’s creativity develop through unstructured play, they improve across the board, from cognitive development to self-regulation to critical thinking skills.

The fact is, imagination is one of the most powerful tools people possess, as thinkers from Aristotle to cutting-edge neuroscientists have recognized. Defined as, “the capacity to create, evolve and exploit mental models of things or situations that don’t yet exist,” imagination is should not just be an after-school pursuit or a Fun-Friday pass-time.

If your child seems bored or disconnected from school (like a majority of their middle-school- and high-school-aged peers), the good news is: stoking their imagination might just be the way to get them plugged back in.

The even better news? Kids are instinctively imaginative. It’s just that they’ve stifled their creativity over the course of their education. Commit to help them reconnect, and you’ve already made significant progress.

Here’s how caregivers can foster creative thinking and get kids’ imaginations back in gear.

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  • Prisma is an accredited, project-based, online program for kids in grades 4-12.
  • We exist to ignite a lifelong love of learning and prepare kids to thrive in the future.
  • Our middle school, high school, and parent-coach programs provide personalized curriculum, 1:1 support from educators, and cohorts where kids build community.

How to encourage imaginative thinking beyond early childhood

Debunk the ‘age-limit’ myth

You might have a child who is just dying to dive back into a world of toys and games. But if you’re reading this post, it’s probably because your child has stepped away from the fun activities they loved years ago.

Whether you realize it or not, in the years since early childhood, they’ve no doubt heard messaging that negatively associates imagination with being “childish” — and encourages putting away toys for more “serious” pursuits.

Tackle this head on: Show them that adults can and should use their imagination. Pick up a box of crayons and doodle with them, choreograph family dances, or rewrite the ending to your favorite movie. (And if it helps, remind them that some of the world’s biggest companies give their employees a chance to play at work, too.)

But also talk to them about the great innovations of human history (in whatever area is most interesting to them). Then invite them to think about how they would contribute to solving an important problem using their imagination. This is the premise of our “Inventor’s Studio” theme, where learners designed home upgrades, animal gadgets and human enhancements in order to solve problems that matter to them.

Balance freedom and structure

Witnessing unstructured play is one of the great joys of parenthood, especially when it unfolds unexpectedly: Your child toddles over to some unsuspecting household items, and suddenly they’ve created a space ship out of your cardboard boxes and junk mail.

But when inspiration doesn’t strike quite so pointedly, the idea of “using your imagination” can seem vague and overwhelming. Suddenly, the opportunity to do “everything” melts into “nothing.”

We find that creative thinking flourishes somewhere in between the poles of freedom and structure. In keeping with the philosophy of Italian educator, Maria Montessori, at Prisma we support our learners’ imagination by finding that balance. With every theme, we provide learners ample boundaries, a well-stocked library, and engaged feedback — and then let their imagination take the wheel as they progress through a series of increasingly challenging “missions.”

Engage imagination in real-life

If your child seems to be counting down the minutes to adulthood, you’ve got a built-in opportunity to reignite their imagination by exploring real world situations.

The truth is, what little kids call ‘make-believe’ or ‘pretend play’ is how teenagers can develop life skills — instead of playing house by moving plastic food around on a toy stove, now they can roll up their sleeves and, with a little practice, prepare Sunday brunch. (For more on how to teach your kids life skills without burning down the house, read here.)

Role play is a great tool to demonstrate how imagination contributes to social development. Present your kids with a hypothetical situation — anything that interests them and feels relevant to their daily life; nothing is too small. (In our Collaborative Problem Solving workshop, we did a recent session on ‘how to get out of a conversation,’ based on a topic proposed by a learner.) Let them brainstorm possible strategies individually, and then act them out in pairs, leaving time to critique the interaction and what they could do differently next time.

Include others

If we want our kids to develop their imagination — “the capacity to create, evolve and exploit mental models of things or situations that don’t yet exist” — they’re going to have to get as many high quality inputs as possible. When it comes to honing creative ability, there are few richer sources than a diverse group of supportive peers, each of whom brings their own ideas and experience to the table.

One of the key values of Prisma, collaboration in a safe community is not just a way to be more productive; research suggests that creating with others is also more fun.

Join our community of families all over the world doing school differently.

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