By Grace Lam
Enter any play-based preschool and you’ll witness a common scenario: little Alex is playing dress-up pirate; Casey is building a city; Sam is preparing a tea party for friends.
It is ordinary pretend play with this scenario of 3- to 5-year olds. They are just using their imagination: their actions are clearly reflective of what they see, hear and feel inside their minds.
Now ask yourself, did you visualize Alex in a black and white pirate costume with a plastic eye-patch or in a folded newspaper pirate hat and a sword made from taped-up, rolled paper? Did you see Casey deliberately stacking wooden blocks to create buildings or arranging cereal boxes as skyscrapers and delineating streets with ropes? Is Sam serving realistically, molded plastic cake or colorful construction paper food?
Most would agree with Einstein’s quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Dare I refute Einstein and extend his famous quote by saying that perhaps creativity is more powerful than imagination?
We tend to use these words interchangeably, especially when describing a person’s trait. It’s true that most children are imaginative by nature, but are they born creative? Or is that a nature versus nurture debate? I dare to propose that without imagination, creativity cannot exist. One has to at least visualize it before one can get down to the business of creating it.
Younger preschoolers are usually very active in exercising their imagination by acting out ideas generated from their brains, but they do not have the dexterity to be creative. That requires finer motor skills and the ability to verbally express, plan, organize and execute.
Now let’s return to Alex and imagine that rather than using the dress-up bin, Alex sits down with an adult and they discuss what a pirate would look like and wear. They gather simple materials (newspaper, string, paper), determine how to put the materials together (rolling, folding, gluing, taping), and if it fell apart, how to build a sturdier second version.
In this uncomplicated exercise, the child learns the rudimentary steps of the creative process. S/he also learns to rethink how materials can be used in different ways. Children learn about perseverance through making mistakes, testing and re-testing, and improving upon their ideas. The reward of accomplishing a task then truly becomes intrinsic as children realize that the greatest pride comes from one that is earned.
Creativity is a trial and error process that gets refined with practice. Scarcity, necessity, perseverance and the arts also aid in heightening one’s creativity.
So, even at an earlier age, involving a young child in the process of bringing to life what they imagined can provide a strong foundation to flexible, open-minded thinking.
As parents, we are bound by resources such as time and money. It’s unrealistic to bring to life every desire or whim that comes from our children’s imagination, but it is feasible to help them open up possibilities by involving them on how it can be done, and providing open-ended, everyday materials that are easily accessible for them to work with.
As an example, a favorite childhood activity with my sibling was playing golf—in our house. We didn’t have a large house, but we used every available space and material to create it: jump ropes shaped into circles to represent water, laid-out newspapers as bunkers, plastic tubes as clubs, buckets as holes, walls and furniture as out-ofbound areas, and tightly rolled-up paper as golf balls. We had the classic combination of a healthy dose of scarcity and imagination to foster creativity.
How can parents and educators today create environments that encourage children’s imagination and creativity?
Return to the basics:
Provide materials/toys that aren’t designed for particular uses; the child can design how they are used. Examples are basic Lego blocks, Tinkertoys, string, odds and ends, tape, paper of various texture, sizes and color.
Exposure to the arts and culture:
Multicultural images and sounds expand the repertoire of design and function. Many local Bay Area festivals and museums can be attended for free.
Enjoy science and nature:
The natural world is full of beautiful, complex design patterns, texture and color and perfect working mechanisms to invoke wonder and awe.
The words and colorful pictures naturally exercise mental imagery. I am no Einstein, but it doesn’t take a genius to witness the spark in a child’s imagination grow if you just spend a little more time being creative together. It’s one wise investment worth making.
Grace Lam is a third-year parent of Bay Area cooperative preschools that offer plenty of materials and open time to create for her two children (and sometimes for herself at the crafts and paint stations…Shh).