Eight-year-old me had a BMX bike named Herby. We were best friends and I talked to Herby non-stop. My family thought I was a bit strange.
Now-a-days, I love to ask P-2 kids if they have a friend only they can see. The younger the group, the more hands that go up. Kids have excellent imaginations!
I remember feeling silly for using my imagination too much. “Davy, you need to stop day dreaming and pay attention!” I never really grew out of it. On the drive home after work, in the shower, or while I’m sitting at my desk – I often ‘wake-up’ and realise I was just in some far off place or lost in conversation with someone who wasn’t there.
Brain scientists are telling us how important it is to keep our imagination alive. They say our brains grow stronger when we use them in new ways – and there is no way to use your brain in a new way without creativity.
Imagination is, simply, the repetition of known thoughts or actions. And invention – the product of imagination – happens when old knowledge and relationships interact in new ways. Imagine me riding my bike Herby over the same muddy path each day. The first day the track is fresh, the second day I try to ride along yesterday’s track, the third day there is a deepening grove for me to follow. Until, after a few repetitions, I am almost forced to ride in the rut because riding outside of it takes effort. Then comes invention – creativity in the rut – I lift up the front wheel while my back wheel is guided by the rut, holding the wheelie, showing off for friends – real or imaginary – my creativity and riding skills on show.
Repetition provides us with skills and experience – even if that repetition was ‘just in our head.’ That’s how the brain works. Every trip down a familiar path – playing a guitar chord, swimming a lap, writing our name, opening a lock, smiling at a friend – causes us to become better at doing that thing – even when we are just imagining it! That’s what the brain doctors say.
An activity in your brain is like a crease in a piece of paper. Every time you fold it on that crease the paper folds easier and easier until just a gentle breath can cause the page to fold along the crease. Practice becomes skill. People begin to call you ‘a natural’ because your talent looks effortless.
Learning is the process of coupling imaginary play with reality – that’s what kids do all day long. A stick becomes a horse, a doll becomes a baby, a playground at recess becomes a world of adventure – pirates, jungle-explorers and superheroes abound. By trying reality on for size, we make sense of the world. And this requires imagination!
At home, children try out the things they see and hear. Their play workshop, kitchen, house or car is them becoming something new. It’s been said that imitation is the greatest form of flattery but with children it’s more. Imitation is life in the making.
Encourage your children when they engage in imaginary play. Let them know you love it when they imagine, invent and create things. Set aside space and time for them to be creative. ‘Free time’ for the brain is like meal time for the body – it’s that important. Take joy (pride even!) in the things they make believe into reality. And protect their ‘free time’ like a lioness protects her cubs.
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For more parenting pondering,
see the "Parently" section of this blog.