Perhaps your grade-schooler’s bed is currently serving as a mermaid’s rock, pirate vessel, or dragon’s cave. Or maybe her imagination seems to have faded a bit since she was younger. Either way, children are hardwired to be imaginative, and that doesn’t change as your child grows. Older kids just may be more private about it.
How your grade-schooler’s imagination works
Your grade-schooler is an old hand at thinking abstractly ”the couch easily becomes a desert island” and she’s experienced at group make-believe: She and her pals have probably had a secret spy club for a while now. But these days she’s probably somewhat low-key about her imaginative games. Grade-schoolers are more self-conscious and can easily feel embarrassed when an adult (or even another child) notices they’re pretending to be a video game character or a favorite pop star. In fact, many of them turn to writing stories, drawing pictures or cartoons, or computer graphics as “acceptable” outlets for their strong creative impulses.
Why encouraging imagination is important
An active imagination helps your grade-schooler in more ways than you might think.
Improving vocabulary. Children who are imaginative, play make-believe games or listen to lots of fairy tales, stories from books, or tales spun by those around them tend to have noticeably better vocabularies.
Taking control. Pretending allows your grade-schooler to be anyone she likes, practice things she’s learned, and make situations turn out the way she wants. Imaginative stories where the brave young girl journeys through the haunted castle or imaginative scenarios of rescuing her whole family from space invaders give your child a sense that she can be powerful and in control even in unfamiliar or scary situations.
Learning social rules. Getting along socially can be tricky at any age. When your grade-schooler and her pals script a talent show complete with costumes, songs, and dance numbers, she’s not only being imaginative, creative, she’s learning complex, real-world rules about sharing, social interaction, and resolving conflicts.
Solving problems. Dreaming up imaginary situations teaches your child to think creatively in real life. A study at Case Western Reserve University found that young children who are imaginative tend to remain so as they get older and to become better problem solvers. Tested later in life, early “imaginations” were more resourceful when it came to coping with challenges and difficult situations, such as what to do if they forgot to bring a book they needed for school that day.
What you can do to spark your grade-schooler’s imagination
Read books. Even if your grade-schooler is reading on her own, it’s a good idea to keep looking at books together and to find ways to make reading fun. Besides the valuable cuddle time, talking with her about the imaginative stories will help fuel her imagination. Expose her to different authors and different kinds of writing science fiction, historical fiction, poetry, diaries. Also be sure to show her that there are books for finding out about things — reference and other nonfiction books to answer questions of all sorts. This demonstrates that there’s a huge imaginative world out there and that it’s within her grasp.
Share stories. Make up stories together. Your own imaginative tales will not only provide a sense of possibilities for your child’s inventive thinking, they’ll demonstrate the basics of creating characters and plots. And using your child as the main character helps expand her sense of self and gives her the vicarious experience of having imaginative fantasy adventures.
If your child enjoys making up her own imaginative stories, encourage her writing skills: Prompt her to put her stories on paper, either by handwriting or by typing on the computer, and bind the pages into little books she can illustrate. Some kids will take right off with this project; others will need a bit more direction (“Why don’t you write a sentence that describes the lion, then a sentence about how Sarah felt when he escaped from his cage?”). Many grade-schoolers enjoy keeping journals filled with entries about their daily imaginative encounters, flights of fancy, and concerns.
Relish her artwork. Your grade-schooler is now more goal-oriented than when she was younger, so with art projects she maybe focusing more on the outcome than on the process. Do what you can to help her enjoy the creative activity itself and avoid frustration with less-than-perfect results. If she asks for your help in drawing or making a representational object, resist the urge to jump in and do it for her; instead, walk her through the conceptual steps, asking her what elements make up a house, for instance, or what details she remembers about her classroom if she’s drawing her school. You can also cut out pictures from magazines and catalogs that may inspire her to offer her own imaginative renditions. And be sure to supply examples of other artwork from classical to modern so she can see that art includes a wide range of interpretations, perspectives, and styles.
Make music. By now your grade-schooler may be eager and ready for music lessons. If you’re unsure, ask an instructor to help you evaluate your child’s readiness. Whether or not she plays an instrument, you can still fill her world with music. Listen to a variety of tunes together and encourage her to participate by singing, dancing, or playing instruments real, toy, or homemade. She can follow along with a song being played or make up her own, complete with lyrics. (Be sure to have a video or audio recorder on hand!)
Encourage pretend play. Children learn a lot from dramatizing events from their daily and fantasy lives. When your grade-schooler invents an imaginative scenario and plot line and peoples it with characters (“I’m the doctor and you’re the patient and you need a shot”), she develops social and verbal skills. She’ll work out emotional issues as she replays imaginative scenarios that involve feeling happy, sad, frightened, or safe. She might reenact the tiff on the school playground today, for example, or role-play different ways to handle the copycat who sits next to her in class.
She’ll develop her understanding of cause and effect as she imagines how you or her friend or her teacher would behave in a particular situation. She’s also practicing discipline, especially since she’ll be making the rules herself or in collaboration with a playmate (the array of intricate rules kids come up with always astounds adults).
Provide props. Towels become turbans, plastic bracelets become precious jewels, old bathroom rugs turn into magic carpets, and that moth-eaten collection of stuffed animals transforms itself into a rain forest, animal hospital, or farm. Because children playing imaginative games love to assume the role of someone else a parent, a baby, a pet a simple object like a toy cash register or a chalkboard can be all it takes to spark creative play. Since most of the action happens inside your child’s head, the best props are often generic, and detailed costumes modeled after specific superheroes really aren’t needed.
Providing a special box or trunk to hold pretending paraphernalia can make playtime even more of an adventure, especially if you occasionally restock when your child’s not looking (“Let’s see what’s in the trunk today!”). Including more than one of the same item can help, too, since two pirates or princesses are always better than one.
Use the computer judiciously. Just because tech companies are churning out software for kids doesn’t mean your child will turn out computer-illiterate if she doesn’t do daily computer time. Still, there are quality imaginative programs that can spark a grade-schooler’s imagination, from drawing, painting, and music software to geography games. And the Internet can be invaluable for looking up topics of interest and exposing your child to different cultures and ideas from around the world.
Limit TV time. When it comes to your child’s TV viewing, balance is key. Some excellent programs can show your child how a rocket is launched, for example, or how kids her age live in Japan, and you can record shows to provide quality programming on your schedule. But don’t overdo it.
Movies and TV shows tend to limit a budding imagination since they do the visualizing for your child, says Michael Meyerhoff, executive director of Epicenter, a parenting information center in Illinois. If your child does watch TV, keep it to less than an hour or two a day. Resist the temptation to use it as an electronic babysitter; instead, sit and watch along with her, posing questions, expanding on ideas presented in the show or movie, and finding out what strikes her as most interesting.
Let her be bored. We tend to think we need to provide our children with constant enrichment through school, after-school activities, and weekend sports or music classes. And it’s painful to hear “I’m booooored!” on unscheduled Saturday afternoons. But don’t feel compelled to whip up an activity every time she whines. Being forced to figure out how to amuse herself often leads to the most inventive and imaginative absorbing games your child will play. You never know what you might learn yourself when she decides to see if one roll of Scotch tape can run from the upstairs bathroom all the way to the backyard, or whether couch cushions balanced on blocks make as good a fort as a blanket slung over the kitchen chairs.
How to live with your imaginative grade-schooler’s
Set limits. Creating and enforcing rules color at the table, not on the carpet is crucial for everyone’s sake. But if you can, let your child live for a bit with the reminders of her flights of fancy. The fact that the dining room table isn’t available for dinner because it’s hosting a stuffed animal tea party gives you the perfect excuse to have a “picnic” on the living room floor.
Keep messes manageable. Yes, pretending to be pioneers on the Oregon Trail may lead to a roomful of camping equipment. While it doesn’t hurt to allow some temporary disarray, at this age your child is ready to learn to clean up after herself and to respect the fact that certain parts of the house may be off-limits for playtime. If you have the space, it’s a good idea to designate a room, or part of a room, as an arts and crafts corner where your child is free to create without worrying about making a mess. A few containment strategies can help, too: Old button-down shirts make great smocks when worn backwards with the sleeves cut off, plastic sheeting under the Play-Doh construction site can protect the rug, and large sheets of butcher paper over the crafts table can prevent an encrusted layer of multicolored paints or glue.
Encourage wild ideas. When an enthusiastic grade-schooler says, “Let’s build a roller-coaster in the backyard!” it’s easy to be practical and point out the expense, building code violations, and safety hazards that would incur. But wild ideas can be the seeds of inventive thinking. It’s better for her creativity if you answer, “Why don’t you start by building a small-scale model for your action figures?” and point out the long-unused toy train track that she can fashion into a mini amusement park outside. (Be prepared to help out!)
Enjoy the offbeat. When your grade-schooler decides her favorite clothing color is black and she wants to wear it (along with her lime green belt) from head to toe every day, or that her room looks best with the curtains rolled up onto the rod, cut her some slack. Adults are socialized to view only certain behavior and aesthetics as acceptable; your child is still developing her sense of what’s attractive or appealing. Encourage your imaginative child who is now beginning to be exposed to peer pressure to feel good about her favorite colors, flavors, stories, subjects, and other individual likes and dislikes as distinctive examples of what makes her unique.
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