Recently I read a news article that disturbed me. The article told a story about a kindergarten teacher who took a large refrigerator box into her classroom for the children to play with. During the morning she waited for the children to show curiosity about such an enticing object. No one did. Finally she initiated play activities using the box. This seasoned teacher said that during her years in the classroom she recognized a decline in children's imaginative play. She was saddened, however, that not one child indicated spontaneous interest in the large and interesting box.
The news story went on to report a recent study indicating that young children feel at a loss when given a clean sheet of paper and crayons. They either want to color pre-drawn pictures or be told what to draw. Although I found these reports difficult to believe, I recalled other information that seemed to indicate that many of today's children feel more comfortable with toys that talk, television and video games than with materials that require imagination.
Imaginative play lends richness to life. An imaginative mind rarely feels bored. Children who use their imagination see options more readily. Parents and teachers who provide opportunities for activities requiring an imaginative approach tend to see more sustained enthusiasm in their children.
Life in the '90s does not easily lend itself to using the imagination. Imagination requires time. Time to daydream, to let the mind wander, to let a box or clean piece of paper rest with a child until it becomes a playhouse or a train or a painting in her mind. Creating something from nothing or from an object dissimilar to that which it becomes requires time to explore, to make changes, to play randomly with the materials. Expanded imagination requires practice. How much time do our children have to daydream and explore without other demands?
Many children move rapidly from one planned activity to another. Planned activities such as sports, Scouts, music or dancing lessons enhance life. They give an arena for developing talents and character. They may lead to a career. When a child's life is too scheduled, however, she does not have time to let her imagination soar. She does not have the opportunity to develop her own unique perspective on events and the environment in which she lives.
In today's world, emphasis is on product. We want to see results for time spent. The most important aspect of a child's play, however, is not product but process. It is the process of play itself that is necessary for the development of young minds. Experiencing and exploring without regimentation leads to healthy growth and development.
Psychologists tell us that a child's play is his work. Through play children begin to discover likes and dislikes among activities. Through play children try on different roles. When children are deeply involved in their play, their focus is as intent as that of any adult who is enjoying time at a chosen task.
Children begin to play during infancy. Touching, looking and listening encompass the infant's play. Toddlers like to mess. Preschoolers continue to enjoy "messing" and as they near kindergarten age like to make simple objects.
When given opportunity and encouragement from an early age, children enjoy pretend play both by themselves and with others. They seek out everyday household items to play with. They model activities they see you doing. They use common items to create their imaginary world.
Busy parents like the convenience of television, computer games and toys that require little of their own precious time. There is a place for these activities. Informed parents, however, also know the importance of providing the time, materials, and space for play that develops the imagination.
When you come home from work tired and frazzled, you will find it difficult to have your toddler playing with pots and pans on the kitchen floor or your preschooler wanting to make play dough. Your enthusiasm for activities rubs off on your child. If you are feeling impatient, activities that require little of your time and attention are best. On less busy days or weekends, activities that demand some assistance from you work better.
Sparking the imagination requires an array of interesting materials. The following materials lead to imaginative play. Their appropriateness depends on the child's age; however, most items work well for children from four through the early school years. Many work well for toddlers. The list is a small sampling of items children like to play with imaginatively. Add to it and delete what your child shows no interest in.
Pots and pans
Wooden kitchen utensils
Old costume jewelry
A container of colored buttons or beads
Various shaped and sizes of wooden blocks
Plastic nesting cans
Empty thread or gift ribbon spools
Old fashioned non-pinching clothes pins
A box of junk mail
Empty milk cartons and oatmeal boxes
Empty gift boxes of various sizes
Scraps of gift wrapping
Scraps of fabric
Toilet paper or paper towel tubes
Sponge hair curler
Magazines with pictures
Pads of empty paper
Crayons or washable markers
Ice cream sticks
Gummed labels or stars
Rolling pins, cookie cutters, dull knives, forks and spoons
Play dough or clay
Cornmeal sandbox (cornmeal in a medium-sized flat box)
Different shapes of pasta
Adult clothes for playing dress-up
Miniature doll family
Small cars and trucks
Young children are naturally imaginative. Giving them the opportunity to use their imaginations in their everyday lives assists them in growing into interesting, flexible older children, adolescents and adults. Next month I will offer activities for enhancing the imagination and recipes for easy-to-make supplies for imaginative play.