Why it’s important to encourage imagination
Your baby was born with about 100 billion brain cells. That’s amazing enough — but what’s happening now that he’s a toddler is almost more so. Each of his brain cells is sending out and receiving electrical impulses called signals, which (with the help of brain chemicals like serotonin) create connections. Repetition turns these connections into the networks that allow him to think and learn. By his third birthday your toddler’s brain will have formed about 1,000 trillion connections — about twice as many as you have!
Right now, your toddler’s brain is much denser than it will be later, and it’s forging the pathways that it will follow for the rest of his life. A connection that’s used repeatedly becomes permanent, whereas one that’s not used (or is used infrequently) may not survive. That’s why experts are now putting so much emphasis on the first three years: Everything you do with your toddler, from reading, singing, and playing to eating and walking, helps jump-start his brain. As you expose him to new sights, sounds and sensations, you open his mind to a bigger, more exciting world. And when you use your imagination and encourage him to use his — “Look, I’m a tiger in the jungle!”, “Let’s pretend we’re going on a long trip” — you spark his brain to forge “imagination pathways” of his own.
Your toddler’s naturally imaginative — all children are. But he may not know how to begin.
Reading stories together about unfamiliar lands and people is a good way to spark his fantasy life, and picture books that enlarge his vocabulary of words and images will help, too. (How can you imagine being a turtle if you’ve never seen one?) Choose books with lots of big, colourful pictures, and enjoy the fact that right now, before your child learns to read and insists on strict adherence to the text, you can make up anything you want. What his brain wants now is input. Show him pictures of everything from beetles to pterodactyls, make sounds for the animals and vehicles, adopt special voices for the different characters and talk about what happened or might happen to the characters. Try to limit videos and television, which “visualise” for him, to allow your toddler’s mind more scope to create pictures on its own.
Hearing you tell your own made-up stories is just as good and maybe even better — not only will your tales provide scope for his imagination, they’ll demonstrate the basics of creating characters and plots. And using your child as the main character in the stories is a great way to expand his sense of himself.
Soon enough, your toddler will start coming up with his own stories and adventures. Don’t worry if he copies you at first; that’s how children learn. As his imagination expands, the inventiveness of his scenarios will astound you.
Almost anything can be a prop for imaginative play. Towels become turbans, plastic beads become precious jewels, old bathroom rugs transmogrify into magic carpets, and your toddler’s mound of stuffed animals transforms itself into a rainforest, animal hospital or farm.
Believe it or not, the best props for imaginative play are often simple ones. Since most of the action takes place inside your child’s head, detailed costumes — such as those specific to particular movie characters, for instance — aren’t really that helpful. A Batman suit can only be a Batman suit. But with a plain hat and towel, a child can be a lot of different characters. Exposing your child to as many real people, places and events as possible is the best way to ensure he’ll have lots of ideas to draw on when pretending time comes.
Providing a special box or basket to hold pretending paraphernalia can make imaginative games even more of an adventure, especially if you occasionally restock when your toddler’s not looking (“Let’s see what’s in the box today!”). And providing doubles of favourites so that friends can join in can help, too.
Encourage pretend play
Children learn a lot from dramatising events from their daily — and fantasy — lives. When your toddler invents a scenario and plot line and peoples it with characters (“I’m the daddy and you’re the baby and you’re sick”), he develops social and verbal skills. He’ll work out emotional issues as he re-plays scenarios that involve feeling sad, happy, frightened or safe. Imagining himself as a superhero, a horse or a wizard makes him feel powerful and teaches him that he’s in charge — he can be anyone he wants. He’s also practising self-discipline he’ll be making the rules up himself or with a friend (the intricate rules children work out between them always astounds adults). He also develops his understanding of cause and effect as he imagines how a frog or a dog would behave in a particular situation.
Perhaps most important, creating imaginary situations and following them through to a conclusion teaches your child to think creatively and solve problems. In one study, not only did children who were imaginative when they were young tend to keep this quality as they got older, but they became better problem-solvers as well. Tested later in life, early “imaginators” had more resources to draw on when it came to coping with challenges and difficult situations, such as what to do if they found they’d forgotten a book they needed for school that day.
Imagination is a messy business, there’s no doubt about it. Pretending to be Hansel and Gretel means a trail of crumbs through the living room; pretending to be witches and wizards means someone, eventually, is going to get whacked over the head with a broomstick.
Stockpiling an arsenal of “containment” strategies can help a lot: old shirts worn backwards with sleeves cut off make great smocks; plastic sheeting under the Play-Doh construction site will save the table top; large sheets of lining paper covering the table (or the floor or the walls) can prevent multicoloured walls.
Setting limits (no using the “swords” for hitting, no throwing snowballs at heads and faces, no eating those enormously inventive kitchen chemistry concoctions) and enforcing them is also crucial — to your child’s ultimate happiness as well as yours. And psychologists agree that whileimaginary friends are fine, if your child starts blaming the friend for something she did, it’s time for a reality check.
But if and when you can, let your toddler live for a bit with the reminders of her flight of fancy. The fact that the dining-room table isn’t available for dinner because it’s currently serving as an igloo gives you the perfect excuse to have a pretend picnic on the living room floor.
Enjoy the offbeat
When your toddler begs to wear his spaceman outfit (or her fairy wings) to nursery for the third day in a row, you may find yourself in a quandary. Adults are used to drawing strict lines between “public” and “private” behaviour — your smelly old tracksuit bottoms and dog-eared rabbit slippers are fine for around the house, but not for the supermarket — and it’s hard to believe that toddlers don’t think this way. But when you find yourself forcing a confrontation (“You have to take off your fairy wings NOW”) — remember that your toddler doesn’t have these boundaries yet, and that’s nothing to worry about. It’s not that he’s lost in some fantasy world, he’s just not finished playing.
As adults, we think in terms of objectives — getting the maximum number of errands done in the minimum amount of time. And we worry about what others think, therefore we feel emotions such as embarrassment. All of these habits are positive — we learn them because they help us get along in society and succeed at work. But they do tend to work against a free-floating imaginative life. In other words, you may not realise it, but imagination-wise you’re carrying a lot of baggage. Toddlers are a wacky bunch, because they haven’t yet learned to worry about not being productive or looking silly. Lucky them!
Listen and appreciate
Alice may have started out in Lewis Carroll’s mind, but if he hadn’t written down her adventures we’d all be poorer. Part of developing an imagination is learning to share it.
The best way to help your toddler move to this next step is by being a good listener. Toddlers’ verbal skills aren’t great, of course, but they get better with practice. Trade off lines of a story: While you’re driving, say, “Once upon a time there was a dog. He lived with a little girl named Molly and they liked to go to the park. One day …” Then give your toddler a turn. If she’s not up to a whole line, she can still participate: invite her to name the little girl and the dog.
When your toddler draws a picture, invite her to interpret it for you. Instead of saying “What a beautiful house!” (unless your child’s a budding Leonardo there’s a good chance you’d guess wrong anyway), say “What lovely colours you’ve used!”
Pretending allows your toddler to be anyone she wants, to practise what she’s learned, and to make things come out the way she wants them to. It may look like mess and sound like noise, but why not give her the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s an artistic or literary masterpiece in the making? Listening to her will help you keep up with what she’s thinking and, who knows, you might revitalise your own imagination in the process.