I have to hand it to my husband because for someone without any education what so ever in child development, he does an excellent job of fostering our two children's imagination. It is not uncommon for him to bring home toys or items for him and the kids to play with. He tends to buy the fun imaginative toys and I tend to buy the fun craft projects and gross-motor toys; my only rule is no hand-held electronic devices until the kids are older. I also limit computer time and electronic toys of any type. The key word is limit, not eliminate.
My favorite story about him and my daughter playing imaginatevely is how he bought her a Peter Pan costume and him a Captain Hook outfit that included the eye patch, hat, hooked hand, and sword. He did this back when she was four years old and they had watched the Disney (R) Peter Pan movie numerous times. She then started wanting to act out scenes with her Dad. Of course he is thinking "How can you really act out the scenes without the proper gear?". I stood back and watched them play. It was amazing to watch. She quoted lines from the movie here and there, but mostly just played the part. He would toss her in the air onto our king-sized bed to pretend like she was shot out of the cannon. Then she walked across the bed as if it were the plank. They also had sword fights with foam swords. She sometimes switched roles and was Tiger Lily. To top it off, she insisted at bedtime everynight for at least 3 months that him or I read the Peter Pan story to her. From an occupational therapist's point of view it was nice to see the motor planning, coordination, and problem-solving during the whole play period.
Really, this is huge, because so often the children I work with that have developmental disabilities have difficulties with play. Not only is the reciprocal interaction difficult, but also not perseverating on how things must go. Often the play skills of the kids I work with is initially guided by the adults. It then hopefully progresses to the children initiating the ideas and expanding the amount of time they can play one activity. Because I work with infants and toddlers I don't see this often, but sometimes right around the time the child turns 3 years old it starts to emerge. It is times like that I wish I still worked with children of all ages such as when I worked in a therapy clinic.
Sometimes I work with children who are functioning age-appropriate or above normal in the area of cognition. Maybe I am working with them in OT due to feeding problems or orthopedic impairments of the upper extremities such as a brachial plexus injury. When I do work with these kids, once they are two years old I can get them to do amazing things all in the name of imagination. For example, if I can get a 30-month old boy with a nerve injury to his arm to pretend that the exercise ball is a horse and that he is a cowboy, then I can get him to do some great stretches, strengthening, and balance exercises without him ever realizing it. If his favorite character is Spider Man, then we can jump, wheelbarrow walk, and go through obstacle courses while he pretends to be Spider Man. The possibilities are endless.
One population of children with age-appropriate cognition that I sometimes see a "not so good" imagination in is kids with feeding problems. Not the mechanical or motor problem feeding delays, but the behavioral and sensory-based feeding problems. Some of the time this is due to the overly structured environment they live in along with being constantly told what to do; maybe this is the etiology of the feeding problem- they can control food and mealtime even when they can control nothing else. Before I make anyone mad, I emphasize "sometimes", mainly because sensory-based feeding problems have many reasons for arising. I am focusing in on when it is truly a child with behavioral based feeding issues. For example, if a 2.5 year old child is somewhat robotic in that he can label colors, animal names, and facts that only a 5 or 6 year old would know, but can't play with his kitchen play set or with another child interactively, then imaginative play is delayed. And the reason is not because he is not intelligent enough. I can peg these kids quite early on in the evaluation process because usually the parents are trying to answers questions for the kid and guiding them to follow my directions with multiple cues. If the child doesn't perform, the parent either becomes frustrated, demands the child do it again, or tells me "I know he can do this".
Some thoughts on promoting imagination during play:
- offer toys that can be played with in more than one way such as cars, blocks, dress up clothes, and balls. Not that toys that can only be played with one way are bad, they just may not promote the imagination as much.
- follow your child's lead instead of having them join your play all of the time. For example, if your child has a limited repertoire of play and insists on playing with trains on the tracks, not expect him to play dress-up with an animal costume. Instead, change the train tracks, change the location of the train table, or push the trains around the room including over the chairs, under the table, and through the hallways while making "choo-choo" sounds. Expand upon their interests which is much more likely to help them be creative.
- encourage simple artwork such as finger paints, water sticks, chalk, and crayons. Do this with blank paper as opposed to a coloring book
- set up obstacle courses and pretend like you are in the jungle or some other place, and name all of the furniture after what you would see in the jungle. When crawling between the back of two chairs with a sheet draped over it, pretend as if that is the dangling greenery from the jungle trees.
Well, that is enough ideas for now. I am off to go play cops and robbers in the backyard with my two little ones!