I didn't admit this in my first post, but as well as being a parent (of 2 children aged 4 and 7), I am also a teacher. I wear a number of different hats throughout the week. One of my favourite times is my voluntary work with the local toddler group, where I am "The Messy Lady". Glue, paints and glitter are in abundance during the session (and for the rest of the day!). Working with the little ones is exhausting but gives me the chance to hear parents' concerns, worries, hopes and joys about life with a preschooler, and to watch the kids playing make-believe games.
I also run the Parents' Learning Project in primary schools, which aims to help parents better understand what their child is doing in school, and so help them at home. It was at one of these sessions that we started a discussion on imagination. One of the parents commented that some primary school age children seem to be naturally more imaginative; more able to make up a story on the spot or engage in an imaginary game. It got me thinking; is it actually the case that some of us are innately more imaginative? Does a lack of imagination hold children back? And can we do anything to encourage and develop our children's imaginations?
We are big fans of Charlie and Lola in our house. For those of you who haven't encountered this duo, Lola is a highly creative and imaginative 4/5 year old who, with her older and somewhat more sensible but highly supportive brother Charlie, lives in a world full of weird and wonderful creatures, strange lands and imaginary friends: Soren Lorenson gives Lola a confidence and a way of dealing with and working through problems that most of us as adults could do with from time to time! They seem to have very few toys; one of my favourite adventures is when they are in the dentist's waiting room and make friends with the smiley boy and girl on the poster who only eat apples and brush their teeth until they sparkle. Unlike normal children Charlie and Lola are surprisingly self-sufficient when it comes to playing games. I cannot imagine them complaining that they are bored or have nothing to do. Even when Charlie is busy playing with his best friend Marv, looking for a terrifyingly tricky monster, Lola simply has a tea party under the table, eventually managing to inveigle her way into their game and catch the monster with the help of Soren Lorenson, a bunny, and some pink milk.
Most of us don't have children like Charlie and Lola. Most of us need to acquire some toys and games and provide some stimulation at least some of the time. But perhaps these things should be a starting point for imagination. Even television can encourage imagination. Try asking your child about an episode of their favourite programme - what did they enjoy about it? What were the characters like? Can we dress up as a favourite character? What would happen if...? Don't underestimate the importance of these 5 minute conversations; encouraging children to think creatively helps them with their problem solving; role play can help them to prepare for new situations; telling and making up stories together increases their vocabulary, and allows them to test out new words.
The national curriculum in the UK expects that children in primary schools will be able to participate in drama activities, to use language to explore situations and emotions and to be able to create imaginary worlds in their spoken and written English.(1) Parents can give their children a great head start at home by encouraging role play, dressing up, let's pretend games: We're in a boat made out of this old box and we're sailing to a desert island where we'll discover... Most importantly, let your kids take the lead. Start them off, and help when they get stuck, but let the story be theirs.
The toddlers that I get sticky with have bags of imagination. For them, the boundaries between what is real and what is imaginary is still blurred. It's a shame that by the time they get to school some of these kids will be starting to forget how to make up a story. Let's rediscover this as adults and get into that cardboard box boat with our children.