A young child's imagination is a fascinating thing to witness and an amazing process in which to participate, for those lucky adults so fortunate to be invited! Preschool-aged children have a rich imaginary experience and from their imagination springs forth powerful creative expression. Each day children bound into their experience eager to pretend and invent. Very little external stimulation is required to spark this process, the rich interplay between imagination and creativity.
So what part then do the adults in a child's life, parents, teachers and care givers, play in this process? Do we just step back and be a respectful witness, or are there specific things we can do (or not do) to enhance and cultivate a child's imagination and creativity?
It has been my privilege for more than three decades to observe and contribute to the imaginative and creative process in young children, both as a preschool teacher and director. So what follows are some specific ideas on how to create an environment that will enhance, rather than inhibit, this natural and powerful force.
But first a story: I recall a number of years ago watching a documentary about the great 20th century artist, Pablo Picasso. Picasso's father was himself a highly accomplished classical painter. The elder Picasso had trained his obviously gifted son from a very young age in the methodology of traditional painting. In the film Pablo reported that because of his father's insistent tutelage, by the age of twelve he had learned to paint like a master -- and that it took him the remainder of his life to learn how to paint like a child! The lesson here is that the imaginative and creative process so naturally abundant in young children is something to be treasured, preserved and respected -- and once lost nearly impossible to recapture.
So here are some things to try at home:
1. In order for a child's unique creative expression to burst forth from imagination there needs to be a quiet space and times not impacted by the usual bombardment of media and electronic stimulation. Be sure that your child has the space and time to imagine and create. This often means doing less, not over-programming, shutting off the television, cds, computer, music player. Create a quiet and stimulation-free zone and watch how from that serene place your child's natural inclination to pretend and create flourishes.
2. Be sure your child has a space somewhere in your home for art and tactile exploration and for getting messy. For your preschooler this means finger-painting and easel painting, sand and water play, and lots of opportunity for a direct tactile exploration of colors and textures. Everything should be big: big paper, large chunky brushes and crayons and markers -- just right for a young child's small hands and developing small muscle control. This will need to be a place where messes are okay and even encouraged. Remember, it's the process that's important, not the product. Resist the temptation to ask your child, "What have you made?" or "What's that a picture of?" Truth is, your child doesn't know! For him it's just an in-the-moment mucking around in color and form, and not yet representational. So instead say, "I really like how those two colors look together" or "What a great set of squiggles!" Use those easel or finger paintings for wrapping paper for birthday or holiday gifts. Or bring your favorite composition to the local copy center and have it reprinted on card stock paper for note or gift cards.
3. Perhaps your young son (unlike his sister) shows no interest in paints, colors and getting messy, but instead prefers to spend long periods building elaborate structures with blocks. Take photos of his creations, print them and put them on your refrigerator or walls along with the art work. In this way he'll see that you value this form of imaginary play and creative expression just as much as the art work.
4. Enjoy the creative process with your child. Make things together out of the simplest of materials: a cardboard box, pictures cut from a magazine. Go on a nature walk together and collect seeds and leaves, sticks and pebbles. Bring them home and get out the glue and make a collage. Keep it simple and fun -- the possibilities are endless.
5. Of course read, read, read to your child but be sure to also make up your own stories together. Everyone has a story -- the story of how you and your partner got together; the unique story of your child during the pregnancy and birth; the story of your child's growing up; or just the story of what happened that day. Or make up fantasy stories and pretend songs and rhymes together. Make them as silly and nonsensical as you can! Talk in baby talk or gibberish -- have fun with sound and rhythm. Put on the music and move and dance together. Keep it big and expansive. There's no right way and no mistakes are possible.
6. Resist the inclination to focus too soon and too intensely on letters and consonant sounds. Trust me that if your child's early years are rich in the kind of age-appropriate, play-based activities described here there'll be lots of time and opportunity when he's at just the right point of readiness to learn the basics of reading. After all, that's what Kindergarten will be for. Most studies indicate there's no long term benefit in accelerating the process of learning to read. And by focusing too early on the complex and abstract skills required to read, before a child is developmentally ready, we actually incur a higher risk of failure.
7. Don't rescue your child from boredom. Let there be times each day and each week when there is nothing to do. If you have every minute planned and programmed then what you've taught your child is to be dependent on adults for ideas and the opportunities for creative expression. You deny him the chance to direct his own time and make his own choices -- essential skills in the movement toward autonomy and independence. Probably many of the world's most creative and innovative discoveries stemmed from someone who was bored and just looking for a way to entertain herself or to fill the time. Out of the experience of nothing -- nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be with -- comes the possibility of discovery, imagination and creative expression. Make time to celebrate nothing!
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