Written by Esther Boylan Wolfson
Date: April 2013
Brittany’s mother wants her to do well in school. She purchased a special series of workbooks designed to help develop cognitive skills in children. Every day when she gets home from work, she sits with Brittany to work on her skills. But despite her mother’s best efforts, Brittany usually ends up on the floor screaming and yelling. All she wants to do is go outside, play on the swings and run around the yard. Her mother worries that if she does not work with her, Brittany will fall behind. She has spoken to many of Brittany’s friends’ parents, who all seem to also be working with their children. Brittany is four years old.
More and more parents worry about children like Brittany as pre-schools have begun concentrating on developing pre-academic skills. Preschool children are methodically taught skills such as colour, size, number and letter recognition. In many pre-schools as well as in the home, children as young as three, work on filling out workbooks and completing homework assignments.
“Imagination,” says Avshalom, “is like a muscle that needs to be used. Just as a weight lifter needs to exercise his muscles in order to strengthen them, a child needs to actively use his imagination skills in order for them to develop.”
What can get lost in the rush for attaining pre-academic skills is the development of an area that can be essential for achievement and success in later life – the imagination. In fact, many early childhood experts feel that allowing children to develop their imagination, can be more important that concentrating on pre-academic training.
Shlomit Avshalom, a mother of three, and a teacher at a Waldorf pre-school says that the ability to use their imagination may give children an advantage when they start school.
“Imagination plays a big part in developing a child’s cognitive skills,” says Avshalom. Skills such as number, color, size and shape recognition may at first glance give a child an additional advantage when he starts school. But in the long run, it is often the ability to think creatively and adapt to different situations that determine a child’s ability to succeed in life. These skills are closely connected to the development of imagination in early childhood.”
At What Age Does Imaginative Play Begin?
True imaginative play begins to develop between the ages of three and four. If you watch a two-year-old, his play is always “concrete.” He uses an object in exactly the way it is meant to be used. He can not yet totally play “let’s pretend.” True, he already may love to dress up in a Superman costume, but if you put a two-year-old in a sandbox and pretend to make a cake, it is likely that the sand will end up in his mouth. A four-year-old, however, already understands the concept of playing “as if” and will make a cake and then pretend to eat it.
How Can A Parent Encourage The Development Of Imagination Skills?
Avshalom says, “The question is not how to encourage a child’s imagination, but how to make sure not to discourage it. A child’s imagination develops naturally. Just as we don’t need to teach our children how to crawl, walk, or talk, we do not need to spend time worrying about how to get our child to develop her imagination.”
However, it is important that parents set up an environment for their child that will not discourage the development of imagination skills.
Avshalom says that there are several common practices that discourage the use of a child’s imagination.
* The systematic teaching of concept skills.
Working with workbooks or any kind of formal skill development games can stifle the imagination. Rather than play games or actively teach concepts in her pre-school and home, Avshalom allows her children to learn from day-to-day activities.
By exposing children to a variety of activities and objects, children will learn concepts independently. For example, children naturally learn the concept of big and little by seeing big dogs and little dogs or by looking at a big chair and a little chair. What is important to children is not the ability to repeat these concepts, but their understanding of the differences in the world around them.
However, while this approach is preferable for most children, it is not appropriate for children with special needs who may need extra help to develop cognitive skills.
* Television and Computers
Avshalom feels that television and computer games are inappropriate activities for young children because a child sits passively and does not need to “act” in order for the action to occur.
Children develop and learn to think appropriately by interacting and re-acting to the world around them. Passive activities, such as television, teach children that working is simply not necessary.
Imagination, Avshalom explains, is developed in young children through “action.” When children need to do something in order to achieve results, they need to think more carefuly about what they choose to do and what results they will get based on the decisions they make. If a child watches a show about cars on television, he does not need to move, either physically or mentally. When a child pretends to drive a car, he thinks about what a car does, what actions the person in the car needs to do, and where he might want to go while driving. Then he physically plays out these actions.
Are there any special activities that will encourage a child’s imagination skills?
Instead of involving children in a series of structured activities, parents need to allow children the space and opportunity to use their imagination as much as possible. “Imagination,” says Avshalom, “is like a muscle that needs to be used. Just as a weight lifter needs to exercise his muscles in order to strengthen them, a child needs to actively use his imagination skills in order for them to develop.”
“Special activities are not necessary. Instead, the key to encouraging imagination at home is to include children, even very young children in daily activities.” Letting your child help you cook supper, clean the house, or fold laundry are some of the best ways to expand their understanding of the world and to explore their imagination.
The Waldorf School
Avshalom’s approach to child development and the importance of imagination is seen by examining the educational approach she uses in her classroom. The goal in a Waldorf pre-school is to present to a child an “unfinished” world and allow her to create her own world through her imagination.
Children come into school and use the materials they find to create activities for themselves. The dolls do not have clear facial features. The child decides for himself if the doll is happy, sad, or angry. The animals also do not have distinct features. They are smooth wooden characters that show the outline of the animals body.
The child needs to fill in the information about the animals or dolls by using his imagination. What the object “really” looks like and how it reacts is determined by the child and not by the teacher.
If a child wants to play in a car, he can not use a pre-fashioned assembled car in the classroom. Instead, he needs to think what objects he can put together in order to make a car. There is no “right” way.
Enjoy Childhood Together With Your Child
Encouraging a child’s imagination does not mean letting a child sit on her own. Instead, a parent can help encourage a child’s imagination by working together or alongside him. If your child sits down to draw a picture, sit down next to him and draw your own picture. (Or make up the shopping list) If your daughter is eating a snack, sit down and join her. Do not make specific demands for how each activity must turn out. Instead, let your child lead you and “do as they do.”
Avshalom says that children should be allowed to be children. “Do not insist that your child see the world through the eyes of an adult. Follow your child and see where his imagination will take you.”