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[I]magination has the property of magical expansion; the more it holds the more it will hold. ~ Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, 1925
It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that imagination is like inspiration—that it just kind of happens. Not true. Imagination is just like a muscle—it will become weaker or stronger depending on how it is fed and used. We generated a lot of mental perspiration to feed our children’s imaginations with the best in books, music, arts, stories, poetry, nature, drama, and so much more. However, each of our children still had to actually exercise their own imaginations to make them stronger. We couldn’t do that for them.
Some children may seem to start with a larger capacity for imagination than others, but all children share the same capability for it. Imagination is not limited only to certain personality types. Every child is made in the image of their Creator and is invested with the God-given ability to be creative. Part of your child’s creative nature is their imagination—the ability to conceive of things that are not physically present, that have never been seen, or that may or may not exist. And if that sounds a bit like faith, that’s not a mistake.
The challenge for every parent is not just to feed a child’s imagination, but to expand it. Go back to the muscle analogy— you can feed your child all the proteins and nutrients their muscles need, but unless those muscles are used and exercised, they won’t grow. Children can passively consume what seems like creative food all day long, especially in our digital age, and yet never need to exercise an imaginative muscle. It’s very simple—if you want your child to have a strong imagination, make sure they exercise it.
So here’s my “back to basics” imagination exercise routine. I’m not a Luddite about using digital devices and gadgets for creativity—I love them all. However, for children, analog imaginative exercises will be much more effective than digital ones. Even if there are great sites, gadgets, or apps to do any of the four exercises below, make sure your children log plenty of time doing them unplugged and unconnected. There will be time later for digital creativity, but you don’t get a do-over for childhood. Make the most of it by using the natural ways God built into our human experience to grow and expand their imaginations.
Writing: Give each child a really cool personal journal and a nice pen. Have them physically write something original or creative every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little or a lot, or if it is fiction, fact, fancy, or fantasy, but it must be their own. It’s not an assignment, so don’t worry about grammar and spelling.
Drawing: Give each child a quality sketchbook and some good drawing pencils. Every day, have them sketch something they envision in their minds, or from from a story, whether it is true or not. This is not a drawing lesson, but an exercise in imagination, so resist the urge to teach. Just let the drawing happen.
Telling: Set aside a few minutes every day for each younger child to tell you a story. It can be an original story, or retelling history, or narrating part of a book they are reading. The idea is to give them the opportunity to express in words something in their mind. Resist the urge to converse; let them present.
Showing: Set aside time periodically to allow each child to demonstrate and explain something they are working on, thinking about, or engaged in. Encourage them to use props or drawings to illustrate what they want to communicate. The ability to “show, don’t tell” is an exercise in imaginative explanation.
There is a parental sweat equity in these imagination exercises. Your children sometimes will not know what to write or draw or tell about, so you will need to help them. Create boxes with slips of paper on which you have written idea starters. For example, for writing: “describe your favorite day,” or “write about your trip to Mars.” Or, for drawing, “draw yourself as an adult,” or “draw a bandersnatcher bird.” If you’re feeding their imaginations with good books, music, art, and such, then thinking of ways to exercise their imaginations will come fairly easily.
The reward for your time and theirs will be not only to see a rapidly expanding imagination in your child, but also a rapidly expanding understanding of life and truth. You will see an imagination growing that is able to hold more and more thoughts beyond just what their senses tell them, to what their spirit tells them. You will watch as an expanded imagination enables your child to better understand the grand story of creation, fall, and redemption, and then to exercise a faith that is “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Imagine that!
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