Sunday, 09 November 2008

Nurturing Imagination

Written by  Sherri Mandell

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Yesterday I got down on the floor with my five-year-old son and began to play cars. I did it out of guilt; I felt that I "should" spend time with him. But honestly, I'm not very good at playing cars.

I sat down and thought: What are we going to do?

My son had no such problem. He smashed and bashed and crashed. He created fires and tornadoes. He took the family on a trip to Africa to visit his dead grandfather.

For my son there are no limits. He has imagination.
Zombie Children
By Alison Astair, MSW

Have you ever watched your children watching TV? They sit in front of the television with their bodies rigid and their eyes glued to the program. You call their name. No answer! You walk into the room and they don't even notice. With a closer look, you notice a glazed expression in their eyes. That glazed look is due to a "flicker" that occurs on the screen every few seconds. It's this "flicker" that puts them in what looks like a hypnotic trance.

It's tempting to let your child watch almost unlimited amounts of television. After all, it keeps them quiet! It also gives you some time to yourself and lets you get some things done. What's the harm in that?

Besides developing a dependency on television, studies from the Journal of Educational Research, Volume 90, pages 279-285. have shown that excessive television watching is detrimental to creativity and academic success.

Television-watching is passive, not active. It doesn't make use of your child's creative potential. Children who begin watching television at a young age may not want to learn to read and may prefer television-watching to reading, as it requires less effort on their part, according to the journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics Volume 10(5) pp.259-261, October 1989. And time spent watching television takes away from activities that are crucial to healthy development, such as creative play.

Playing requires imagination. Just watch any child at play. He can become anyone, from a doctors to a police officer to a mommy or daddy. The more hours a child watches television, the less hours he has to devote to his own fantasies and to explore his own world. T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., In his book Touchpoints: The Essential Reference, T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., writes: "Television, except in small doses, imposes an artificial world of violence and unreachable good and evil, numbing the child's own imaginative adventures."

Children need to be given the time to use their minds to create wonderful things. They can develop a sense of pride and accomplishment when they are involved in their own play. Remember making a picture with elbow macaroni glued to construction paper? Remember the pride you felt when you showed your parents? When a child spends her time on a creative activity instead of passively sitting in front of the television, her creative potential is given the chance to blossom.

Sometimes we forget that there was a time, not that long ago, when television did not exist. Those were the times that children were children. Children used their imaginations and played creatively. Our children now see too much and learn things beyond their years while watching television. And children who are watching television inside are isolated from the world outside.

Help your children develop their creativity and imagination by providing opportunities and materials for play (see Imagination Activities) and set limits on what and how much television they watch! How much time per day should I let my child watch television? My answer is this:

"What does your heart tell you?"

Imagination: the ability to remember, dream, create, improvise and in the process entertain oneself anywhere and anytime.

In today's achievement-oriented world, parents sometimes give imagination short shrift. We forget that it is a gift to be encouraged. It is valuable in its own right, allowing a child the space to be his authentic self. And we driven parents who worry about our child's success can rest assured that imagination also has extrinsic rewards: enhancing a child's ability to deal with feelings and problems.

The Benefits of Imagination

"A child can express his real self in imagination because the imagination is unmediated by anybody else's expectations or demands," says Alan Flashman MD, a child psychiatrist. "It's not imposed on him. It comes from within his inner life. Imagination is important because it integrates a child's feelings and dreams and actions. It's a place where a child can experiment and feel control and power. But we should respect the integrity and freedom of the experience rather than trying to quantify it as a utilitarian activity."

Nonetheless, a child with an active imagination benefits because he has a way to deal with intense emotions. New Jersey school psychologist, Beth Falk, PhD, explains: "Kids can become overwhelmed by their emotions but by using their imaginations, they can master their feelings. If a child is afraid of a monster, he can make up a story about hunting down the monster and scaring it and turning it into something else. He's found a way to transform it."

In her classes, actress and drama teacher Andrea Peskoff has seen students spontaneously act out their problems. Six-year-old Heather, an only child, was anxious because her mother was pregnant. In drama class, she crawled on the floor, becoming the baby she feared would draw her mother's attention away from her. In this way, the new baby became a less fearful proposition.

Imagination Helps in Problem-Solving

Peskoff explains: "Heather mastered the situation in her imagination, internally playing out the event before it actually occurred so that when it did occur, part of her would be prepared."

Not only does imagination help a child deal with emotions more effectively, it also helps a child handle problems. Research shows that a child with a developed imagination has a greater ability to deal with stress and upheaval.

A recent study by Professor Sandra Russ at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University found that first and second graders who show high levels and quality of fantasy and imagination in their play scored higher on a test measuring their ability to accommodate to stressful situations. More imaginative kids were better able to deal with forgetting their lunch or being picked on by a bully.

"Because children come up with different ideas in fantasy play, taking on different roles and voices, it's practice for divergent thinking and problem solving," says Russ in an interview with the American Psychological Association's "Monitor Online." Divergent thinking means that imaginative children can generate different ideas about a topic. The ability to generate alternatives allows children to become better problem solvers.

What's your Relationship with your Imagination?

We don't have to sign the kids up for drama classes in order to encourage imagination. "The capacity for living deeply within their imagination is natural to kids," says Falk. "The question is: Do we nurture this capacity by giving kids the space for imaginative play?" (see sidebar.)

Some parents may feel threatened by their child's imagination because they themselves are disconnected from their own imaginations. They may not respect imaginative activity. But if we undervalue imagination, we risk alienating our kids.

One way today's parents deny their children the opportunity to use their imaginations is by over-scheduling enrichment activities, lessons and tutors, and allowing a steady diet of TV. A return to some of the simpler activities of our own childhoods can pave the way to more imaginative freedom.

Reading stories is a wonderful way for a parent to imagine along with his kid because parents and children can respond to what they've just read. Spending unstructured time in nature can also evoke an imaginative response.

If you become involved in your child's imaginative play, be sure to let her take the lead. "One of the nice things about engaging with a child in fantasy play is that the child gets a chance to initiate, instead of following the parent's lead. But the parent has to be aware of the kid's borders. If the kid wants to share his fantasy, fine. But the parent shouldn't force an interaction," Flashman says.

Share Fantasies with your Child

So don't worry that your child is wasting time when he is staring off into space. If he invites you to, share his inner drama. "Connecting on the level of imagination creates a gentle meeting, a special kind of closeness," says Flashman.

It can also be a lot of fun. Just last night, as I was driving home, my 13-year-old son informed me that the moths flying at our windshield were having a demonstration. We decided that they were demonstrating for more woolen clothes to eat. Our imaginative fantasy continued for the whole ride. We had a great time and sharing the fantasy made us feel closer.

Next time you see your child lost in a daydream or in an imaginative game of crashing cars, sit down next to him. You might just rediscover the lost part of yourself, the authentic self who engages with the world without premeditation or pretense and disguise. The self who dwells in fantasy without thought of utility or service. The free and authentic self who is content just to be.

Last modified on Sunday, 29 May 2011 07:16
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Sherri Mandell

Sherri Mandell

Sherri Mandell has a Master's degree in Creative Writing and has taught writing at the University of Maryland and Penn State University. She is the author of the book Writers of the Holocaust. She has written articles for the Washington Post. She is married with four children

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