My daughter, Charlotte, 7, has what can only be described as a big—scratch that—huge imagination. My husband and I are constantly being regaled with tales of her adventures in Angel World, a magical place where she and a couple of her school friends are angels whose job it is to, well, I’d list them here but their duties change daily. Play dates with her similarly imaginative pals typically involve staging elaborate fashion and variety shows. Though all very entertaining, my daughter’s delight in fantasy-play makes me wonder: Are creativity and imagination still valuable traits in a goal-oriented world? Fortunately, say experts, not only are they important, they should be encouraged.
One of the best things about childhood is the freedom imaginative play provides—unscripted entertainment with no expectations. “Kids are really lucky because they don’t understand the way the world is set up. They are not programmed the way we are programmed to work within an established set of parameters,” says Carol Shirley, a registered psychologist in Halifax.
Whether it is pretending to be astronauts or fairies, kids nurture a number of abilities when they engage in make-believe, says Dr. Sandra Russ, a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, whose research focuses on how pretend play is involved in child development. “Imagination in play relates to coping ability, emotional regulation and understanding emotions,” she says. “But the strongest relationship is between pretend play and creativity and the ability to come up with different and original ideas to solve a problem.”
This ability to improvise is crucial as we age, believes Allen MacInnis, artistic director of Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre. “The truth is we need our imagination throughout our lives,” he says. MacInnis notes that as adults we are often called upon to predict or imagine the consequences of an action or to come up with solutions to problems. “I don’t think we’re going to be very good at that if we haven’t actively nurtured imagination as kids.”
In addition to play being a creative outlet, many children use it to process their emotions. Research shows that play can help reduce anxiety in children, notes Dr. Russ. “Where adults talk through their problems, children play them out.”
How To Spark Imagination
Passive pursuits have their place, but when children have some role in an activity, they become engaged in the creative process. “If we merely put them in front of things, such as a movie or television, it might take them to a fantastical world, but the kids have no responsibility for making any part of that real,” explains MacInnis. “That’s why live performance and theatre is a good tool for that. Kids have to use some of their own imagination to fill it in. We are leaving some work for them to do.” Here are some other ways to get the creative juices flowing:
Fantasy vs. Reality
It is not uncommon for parents to worry about their little daydreamer or wonder if their child’s fantasy-play is normal. It’s because we want to make sure our kids are socially acceptable and that they fit in, explains Shirley. It is when their fantasy-play interferes with daily functioning that it becomes an issue. If you are concerned about your child’s social skills or that she is having trouble telling the difference between fantasy and reality, consult a mental health professional.