love the words that poet Wallace Stevens wrote about the imagination: “The imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things.”
To me, imagining possibilities is at the heart of children’s pretend play. That’s the beauty and significance of unstructured, self-invented play – play that leads to imaginative and creative thinking.
Let me describe a chance happening that describes beautifully how I see creative thinking. Michael (barely 3) and I had just gone outside to ‘look at things’. Almost immediately, two brightly-hued, glossy leaves fell in front of us and Michael pounced on them. Swiftly rearranging them to form a ‘V’ in his hand, he turned to look at me triumphantly and said: ‘Flower!’
He had taken two things and created a third – something original, something of value. The very essence of creativity! An ordinary moment had become extraordinary because of a child’s response to the unexpected. While the unexpected rarely happens in structured play activities, it very often does happen in children’s self-invented play: surprise stirs the imagination and sparks original ideas.
Of course, Michael might never have invented his ‘flower’ if I hadn’t been there to see it. Having someone silently appreciate what you’re doing is a wonderful spur to the imagination. Company is important – but we often needn’t say a word. The less you say, the more you allow your child to think for themselves, and the more opportunities you gain to learn about their thinking.
Here is another example of a child thinking for herself. After gathering seedpods, twigs, and leaves from the ground, Luna, barely 3, asked her mother for a bowl – and with that her make-believe cooking started. ‘I’m make soup!’ she said, stirring her finds. Just play? The imaginary begins in play. Through making new connections and pretending that her objects in the bowl are now food, Luna is thinking imaginatively.
Developmental psychologists have shown that substituting one thing for another like this is the starting point for learning to think abstractly.