The Scientific Method For Sparking And Growing Your Kid’s Imagination

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The following was produced in partnership with our friends at Seedling and their new game, Maze, which allows kids to design their own real-world marble maze and then step inside it through virtual reality.  

There might have been a time when fatherhood was beyond your wildest imagination, but you’re here now, so somewhere along the way, things got really, really real. Ironically, a wild imagination is exactly what you need to deal with the realness of the world, and if having a kid didn’t teach you that, maybe an imagination expert can.

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Susan Linn is a psychologist, lecturer, and author who has devoted her life to promoting imaginative play, starting as a children’s entertainer and ventriloquist who pioneered the use of puppets in therapy for kids coping with life challenges. She wrote and produced educational videos with Fred Rogers’ production company and appeared several times on his classic show. So if anyone can help you build your kid’s imagination, it’s a Neighborhood Of Make-Believe resident. Hey, kids, this lady knows Daniel Tiger’s dad!

What We Know

From birth, humans have an innate capacity for imaginative play. For that capacity to grow, Linn says, kids require time, space, inspiration, and silence. Sounds just like your constantly clinging, crying kid, right?

But, sure enough, you’ll start seeing developmental signs of your kid’s imagination growth between age one and 2. That “cookie” they feed you (or force you to feed to their ungrateful, freeloading teddy bear) is their way of using symbols to replace objects, which is the foundation of imagination.

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And imagination is the foundation of learning, creativity, and problem-solving. Imaginative play “is how kids learn to begin a task, follow it through on their own, and delay gratification,” notes Linn. “It’s the beginning of self-motivation and how they wrestle with life to make it meaningful.” Whoa … your 3-year-old is deep, man.

Unfortunately, research suggests kids’ imaginations need a boost. One recent study indicated that beginning in 1990, for the first time, American creativity declined. The study analyzed 300,000 scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), the standard in creativity assessment since the 1950s. Like intelligence test scores, which historically increase 10 points every generation, TTCT scores steadily rose over time — until 1990, which marked a clear, significant decrease that has since continued, most markedly among kindergarteners through sixth graders. The TTCT has been a reliable predictor of who grows up to be successful — entrepreneurs, authors, doctors, developers, and the like — so you probably want to help your kid reverse this trend.

Seedling Maze Virtual Reality

Puzzles encourage creative problem solving — and a-maze-ing #DadJokes.

What You Can Do With This

Fortunately, fostering your kid’s imagination takes almost no imagination. All it takes is stuff your parental instincts should already be telling you to do. Which is good, because it’s gonna take some crazy imagination to figure out how to put your little creative genius through film school.

Read To Them Early And Often

Real books, where you have to do voices and ask what they think will happen next even though you read it so often you accidentally slip passages into work presentations. “When you read traditional books, the conversations are about ‘What could happen?’ or ‘What do you think that looked like?’ It’s an early way to foster both a love of reading and imagination,” Linn says.

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Engage All 5 Senses

Linn is fascinated by the link between movement and cognitive development and encourages parents to physically engage their babies while playing. “Using their bodies is a key factor in helping babies understand abstract concepts like before and after or ahead and behind. One way you learn that is by moving in space — you were over there, now you’re over here.”

Seedling Maze Virtual Reality

Real world imagination is a prerequisite for virtual world exploration.

Show Them That Problem Solving Is Simple

You already know imagination helps drive creative problem-solving (you’re a cognitive development genius now, remember?) so reverse engineer it. One of Linn’s favorite examples from her experience is one you’ll also recognize: “To solve a problem, you need to have patience and imagine solutions. One of the most useful things I ever taught my daughter was, if a puzzle piece doesn’t work one way, try it another. That’s the foundation.” Yes, it is actually as simple as you’d hoped.

Know Where Your Kid’s At

It’s important to distinguish between young kids and older ones; kids aren’t really able to benefit from more complex problem-solving and play opportunities — like those presented by VR or robot building — until around age 8. “When kids have a solid grounding in their own imagination, then they can begin to use the tools of technology. You need a foundation in the material world before you’re ready to  understand and control a virtual world,” says Linn.

“The hallmark of a creative child is the ability to play on their own and amuse themselves with what’s around them,” Linn says. When they’re really small, what’s around them are things like rocks, twigs, blocks, stuffed animals, and their sibling’s toes. After they’ve sufficiently imagined up enough ways to play with all those things, it’ll be tablets, drones, VR headsets, and all kinds of other cool stuff that have yet to be, well, imagined.

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With technology already playing an increasing role in young kids’ lives, the best of these future toys will ideally meld the former (physical play, building, and design) with the latter (virtual worlds, on-screen interactions) and engage the entire family. “Any way you can interact with your child face to face is essential,” Linn says.  Because while solo play might mark creative children, half the reason you had a kid was to play with them. You just might have to jump into the Matrix to do it some time soon.

This article was produced in partnership with our friends at Seedling and their new game, Maze, which allows kids to design their own real-world marble maze and then step inside with friends and family it through virtual reality. Players can create traps, obstacles, riddles, and even selfie stations in the game for the ultimate Maze experience.

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