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Imagine all the People…Connecting through Play

By Coco Menk, MA

A 6 year-old with brown curly hair, hazel eyes, olive skin and a wide smile explodes into laughter after hearing a silly joke from a friend. She then takes this friend’s hand and directs him to crouch down behind an old oak tree so they can hide away from a monster she witnesses approaching them! “Ahh!” She begins to scream, then immediately covers her mouth at the site of the scary monster. She begins crawling away and she motions for her friend to follow. Suddenly the young girl’s mom calls her name and asks her to come inside for a snack. The girl says ‘bye’ as she waves to her friend, a friend who is invisible to her mothers eyes.

Imagination. This is the key to the young girl having the ability to engage in a creative process which transcended time and space as the mother experienced it.

So...what is imagination? Who can access it? What purpose does imagination or imaginative play serve?

What is it? The word imagination can hold various meanings. These meanings are dependent on the content and context from the culture in which it’s derived. In our North American culture, we view imagination as an extension of one's creative experience(s). Imagination may involve imagery, thoughts, sensations and feelings; none of which require external sensory input. Meaning, a person or a group can create a scenario that is beyond their physical reality.

Imagination allows individuals to have profound moments where the everyday objects, feelings or thoughts are seen in a new way. This is especially useful to someone who is looking to problem-solve, such as: a legislator seeking solutions to the pandemic of 2020, or an engineer who is inventing a new device to reduce green-house gasses or a young child thinking about what it would be like to hold their new baby brother for the first time. These evocative moments based in creativity enable us to extend and test the boundaries of the real world.

Imagination as a resource: Research shows that imaginative play or pretend play allows children to develop language skills through storytelling, social and emotional understanding of self and other and thinking skills.

Who can access imagination? Everyone! Even if you feel ‘out of touch’ with it, participating in ‘‘make believe play’ is one way to enhance your connection to it. For instance” pretend you are a sailor and are navigating through tumultuous waters and leading your crew to safety. If this seems out of reach...take a moment, close your eyes, and imagine yourself on a beach. As you breathe in and out to the sound of the waves, notice what you can smell, feel, taste. Is the sun warm? Do your toes feel cool in the sand? Can you hear the seagulls? What color is the sky? Open your eyes. If you feel like you were actually at the beach for even for a moment, this is your imagination working.

So, what does this mean for parents, educators or family looking to engage in imaginative play?

This means that you have the ability to tap into your own imagination and empower the child by joining them in their creative expression. It’s not important for you to interpret the play, it’s important for you to connect. Connection is when you feel understood, safe and perhaps a sense of joy while interacting with someone. Connecting with a child during imaginative play is as easy as: non-judgmental observation, reacting authentically and validating genuinely.

Example: A child tells you to sit down on the grass next to them and says “we are closing the door to our space-ship and we’re about to blast off into space!!”

1. Non-judgment observation: “Wow I’ve never been in a spaceship before!” “ I see you closing the door and fastening your seatbelt” “ Oh my goodness! It sounds like the engines are fired up and we’re about to blast off!”

2. Reacting authentically: “I’m feeling really excited and nervous about going to space!” “My heart is beating incredibly fast as we are blasting off!” “I wonder how big this spaceship is?”

3. Validating genuinely: “You’re really good at flying this spaceship” “I’ve never been to space before so thank you for taking me!” “This is such a cool experience”

Have fun and don’t worry about ‘getting it right’. Oftentimes children will redirect you to what feels true for them in the experience. Let your imagination run wild and remember, there are no limits to what you can create.


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