While my wife and I sat with our children waiting for the concert to begin, I leaned over to our friend Grace, a first grade teacher, and asked, “How do you feel about us keeping our kids up this late on a school night?” She smiled and responded, “I love it!”
The next day, as our slightly tired five-year-old son happily pretended to be a member of “The President’s Own” Marine Band, I recalled our teacher friend’s words. “I love that you guys bring your kids to things like this on a school night. It’s so helpful for their imaginations.”
Years ago, when my wife and I were expecting our first child, many well-intentioned people warned us that married life as we knew it was over. We were told that for the next dozen years or so, our lives would revolve around activities geared toward children. We refused to believe it.
From the get-go, my wife and I decided that we were not going to allow our lives to be ruled by our children. And, lest anyone assume that our motives were purely selfish, we believed that this course of action would best serve our kids, too. Specifically, we believed that exposing our children to all manner of experiences would aid the development of their imaginations.
Imagination is a precious commodity that not only opens up employment opportunities, but also enriches our time on this planet. In his book The Body in the Mind, philosopher Mark Johnson wrote, “Without imagination, nothing in the world could be meaningful. Without imagination, we could never make sense of our experience.”
Very few people debate the importance imagination plays in child development. In fact, imaginative play is so overwhelmingly recognized as important that the UN Commission for Human Rights has declared that imaginative play is a basic human right for children, explaining that “the value of creative play and exploratory learning is widely recognized in early childhood education.”
In his popular TED Talk video, Sir Ken Robinson entertainingly details why he believes “creativity now is as important as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” Robinson contends that classrooms need to foster the growth of imagination in children. He argues that creativity is a catalyst for their success, especially as college degrees continue to become devalued. His concern is that schools crush the imaginations of children in service to our society’s industrial emphasis.
Most parents recognize the important role that imagination plays in the development of children. Many parents search for schools that provide creative outlets inside and outside of the classroom. I’m afraid, however, that many homes are structured in rigid ways that subvert the imaginative opportunities that their children have away from school. But it’s important for parents to find ways to help their kids develop their imaginations away from school.
Books, of course, are an obvious answer. Encouraging children to enter into wonderful and fanciful worlds filled with heroes, villains, and interesting conflict allows them to develop rich imaginations. Anecdotally, my wife and I frequently see this illustrated in our two children. Their imaginative play is often shaped by the books that they are reading or the books that we’ve recently read to them. Many parents will confirm our experience. My wife and I, though, decided that including our children into our lifestyle instead of conforming our lifestyle to our children was another way to foster our kids’ imaginations.
This was partially birthed by my years teaching and making theatre. Among children (adults, too), the more interesting and engaging actors were generally those who had been exposed to a variety of experiences. Those children had greater imaginations that were much more nuanced. This supports a statement made by Sanford Meisner, the acting theorist and teacher: “There’s no such thing as a stupid actor.”
Meisner wasn’t necessarily referring to intellect, although intellect plays a role. His statement was referencing the actor’s willingness to explore different disciplines and to allow himself the opportunity to have his world widened through interaction with a variety of experiences. This is important for actors, because their craft requires that they believably present a variety of characters and situations. Being exposed to many different people, places, and activities gives the actor a deep well that his or her imagination can draw from in order to help create a believable experience for the audience. This corresponds with Sir Ken Robinson’s belief that “we think about the world in all the ways that we experience it.” My wife and I have folded this belief into our parenting.
Of course, we happily take our kids to playgrounds, children’s museums, and kid-centric activities. However, our children have grown up attending concerts, visiting a variety of museums, and not being constrained by the kid-centric scheduling imposed by the Tiger Mom culture. This is why we have zero qualms about keeping our school-age children out late on a school night.
This is not to say that we blatantly disregard all common sense. For example, we understand that plentiful sleep is also vital to healthy development. Keeping our children out late is not a common occurrence. But we are not afraid to send our children to school sleepily cranky once in awhile for the sake of an imagination-enriching experience. While we have refused to believe that our lives were going to be completely changed by the arrival of children, we haven’t selfishly dug our heels in and refused to compromise.
Recently, we took our ten-year-old daughter to see The Glass Menagerie at Ford’s Theatre. Unsurprisingly, she was the youngest audience member, a fact that is unfortunate. Tennessee Williams’ beautiful, heart-wrenching story isn’t necessarily easy for children to follow, nor will they find it entertaining. But the overall experience offers rich rewards for kids, too.
Besides the benefit of developing a love for theatre, our daughter had the opportunity to engage a well-told story that requires a level of cognitive engagement that most kid-centric stories do not. She loves to write, and as the play progressed, she attentively watched and took notes in her notebook. After the play, I asked her questions and was thrilled to hear how watching The Glass Menagerie helped turn on narrative lights within her brain. Her imagination brimming with further categories for how well-told stories can be shaped, she dove into creating a story of her own. The strained, yet loving, relationships in the play exposed her to a richer understanding of the nuance of humanity, and that has helped her uncover more imaginative character relationships in her own stories. A few weeks later, at a parent-teacher conference, her teacher marveled at the many ways in which our daughter manifests her rich imagination.
My wife and I firmly believe that our daughter’s vivid, well-rounded, and multi-directional imagination has been developed in part because we refused to buy into the notion that we had to stop going to the museums, concerts, and plays that we enjoyed before having children. Keeping kids chained to rigid schedules and rarely exposing them to events that many consider above the heads of children is denying them opportunities to stretch and grow their imaginations.
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