By Jill Slagter
Have you ever given a child the box that a new refrigerator came in or even just a plain old empty box? What did that box turn into? When I was young, I have a clear memory of my older sister pushing me around in that box/fort/truck/plane for hours. However, I can’t remember a thing about the refrigerator.
We often start our meetings and brainstorming sessions in our education department with a creative warm-up and one of those warm-ups is called “This is not a…”. Any random object is passed around and we take turns saying things such as “This is not a marker, it’s chapstick for an alien.” Or, “No, this is not chapstick for an alien, it’s a lightsaber for a mouse”. And so on.
This game is used to get our creative juices flowing, but it also reminds me that when you let your imagination take over, as children often do, there are a million different ways to see the world. When engaging with children, I always try to remember that they may see a world completely different from the one I see, and letting that imagination go wild does wonders for a child. Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician specializing in Adolescent Medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, reported last year in The American Academy of Pediatrics, that child-driven play contributes to “cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being”. It has been shown to help children develop empathy, self-confidence and creativity, among a multitude of other beneficial traits. (http://www.aap.org/pressroom/playFINAL.pdf)
As an educator at a children’s museum, I get to see child-driven imaginative play almost everyday. And, when I just ask questions and encourage children to create meaning for the objects they play with, I’ve been rewarded in many ways, including getting to eat a big plate of clay eggs, meeting a monster that can shrink people and crawling through a tunnel in a princess castle. Had I looked at those objects with my “grown-up” vision on, I may have just seen a big hunk of playdoh, a strange looking blob character, and a big mess of foam noodles and blocks to clean up.
A powerful example of the meaning children embed into objects can be seen in this story of Queen Critical. You may think these just look like paper people, but you’ll never believe the story the child has created about these characters. And all we had to do was ask.
Recently, I was playing with my friend’s 3-year old daughter and bought her a puzzle made out of blocks. Instead of putting the puzzle together as the box describes, she started building the highest tower she could build. My initial reaction was to show her how to do the puzzle, but then I realized, “Why can’t this be a game where we build the highest tower we can?”. Allowing her to play the game as she sees it and encouraging her, instead of trying to correct her, helps her realize that there is value in her ideas, which is a big part in developing what we at CCM call “creative confidence”.
Here are 3 easy strategies you can try at home to foster child-driven play:
1. Engage children in the fantasy world they are creating:
When you see imaginative play happening with your child or among a group of children, ask a few simple questions to help you understand the world they have created. Try to include yourself in the questions so that they know you are a part of this fantasy. Questions like “What are WE doing here?”, “What are WE going to do?” and “What should WE do next?” not only empower children to take charge, but show them that you understand the immediacy and urgency of the (imaginary) situation. Follow along, support them, and resist the temptation to take the lead.
2. Provide open-ended materials and objects that lend themselves to creative use/interpretation (true toys):
Find some unique props to stimulate dramatic play and set up a situation. There are lots of open-ended children’s toys that work for this such as dollhouses, wooden trains, blocks, or castles, but don’t be afraid to use what you have lying around as well such old clothes for dress up, big boxes, blankets, etc.
I have a drawer full of little plastic animals at home. I’ve seen those animals talk, hide, fight, swim, fly, raise families, and even disappear during magic shows.
Nothing inspires imagination and stimulates scenarios for play like hearing stories. Show your child the cover of the book and ask what they think it might be about. When reading to your child or a group of children, ask questions such as “What do you think will happen next?” and “Why do you think that?”. You can also occasionally try to read a book aloud without showing your child the pictures. Let them just listen and imagine the characters or have them draw a picture of what they think the main character looks like.
Finally, for a little inspiration check out a book I like.
Not a Box by Antoinette Portis