I’m constantly amazed by the imagination of toddlers. Recently I had a little peek into just how incredible this world it can be.
While we were ‘wrapping’ Christmas presents (aka bandaging every soft toy with sticky tape), my three-year-old told me a secret.
This secret was that she has a second set of parents. These parents are called Bob and Bill, and they are penguins that live in a place called ‘Ingloo’ (somewhere quite cold and near Grandad’s house, apparently).
She had written to them to come and visit and they were hopefully going to come to our house for Christmas.
The conversation continued: we worked out how they would get here (on a sleigh a bit like Santa’s but powered by giant balloons), where they would stay (we would build them a cot from ice cubes), and what we should get them as Christmas presents (sticker books, a body board, and a rainbow – my favourite!).
As we sat on the floor, I realised that there had probably been many times over the recent months that I had been be too busy to become involved in her world. Nurturing an imagination can quickly fall away nowadays, amid iPads, TV, and increasingly time-poor lives. However, studies show there are strong links between imagination and cognitive ability – meaning imaginative children will learn better, be better problem-solvers, and cope better with challenges later in life.
So, here are a few simple ways for even the busiest parent to nurture that imagination.
5 simple ways to nurture your child’s imagination
Books and stories encourage imagination and allow a fantasy world to come alive. Read books together, or find bright picture books and let him read the book to you – it’s amazing what storylines children can come up with without the restriction of knowing the words! Making up stories together is another great way to connect and imagine. If you struggle to make up stories, you can always find a story in a day-to-day activity – just walking to the shops or playing at the park. Finding a narrative with your child as the main character also helps them develop a greater sense of self.
If she wants to go to daycare in a Spiderman outfit, or wear her fluffy rabbit slippers to a party, if at all possible let it happen. If he can’t sleep in his bed one night because it is currently a pirate ship, see it as a great opportunity to ‘camp’ out on the floor. Though these things might go against your societal rules, toddlers don’t have such boundaries yet so try not to force those rules too early.
Paint, build, create, and sculpt. Use leaves, twigs, cardboard boxes, building blocks and other open-ended toys to create pictures and worlds. Don’t put boundaries on it – let the sea be pink and the sun be green… it’s OK to be different and what he imagines isn’t automatically ‘wrong’. Be prepared for things to get messy, and if you don’t like things untidy, set aside one corner of the garden or house as a creative space, so you aren’t constantly tripping over the artwork!
Encourage imaginative play
Have plenty of old clothes in the house for dress-ups. Dad’s old shirt is a great doctor’s coat, or old tracksuit pants can create a spaceman, whilst random hats, necklaces and shoes can lead to wonderful made-up characters. If you don’t have many props for dress-ups, try a puppet show. Again, you don’t need fancy puppets to do this – make your own out of card, or some old socks, or use a torch and make shadow puppets on the wall.
Use the outdoors
Head out for a walk and spot things along the way to make a story: knots in a tree could be an elf door; twigs and leaves can be gathered to make wonderful pictures or construct a fairy world when you get home. Talk about what you see, from grasshoppers and spiders’ webs to trees and cars, each can have a personality and a story.
I’m certain that at that moment, surrounded by shreds of wrapping paper, she firmly believed in this wonderful penguin-filled world, and I wanted to do everything I could to encourage her that anything was possible.
Part of me doesn’t know how to let it pan out, in the fear she will be disappointed when Bob and Bill don’t turn up. While there is a huge part of me wishing much-loved imaginary penguin-parents were actually real … maybe they will even babysit one night so we can go out for dinner!