How Play Can Grow the Imagination

Jan & Mark Foreman essentials

It was good.  This one word describes God’s creation, the original playground for the first kids.  It was a good garden.  So God’s children were free to eat from every tree in sight, except one. That park was a widely varied, life-tasting feast of beauty, fragrance, flavors, sounds and textures. Gardens are for growing.

This reveals God’s playtime approach: provide an open space that allows each child to thrive. But what could that good garden look like in our average households well outside of Eden?  We can borrow five ideas from this story.

Create free spaces.

A kid-friendly garden includes real choices and discovery because each object a child inspects is both a decision and a moment of insight.  This empowering curiosity is never meant to be lost.

Our children’s free space included a craft closet of odds and ends. It held the usual supplies of construction paper, glue and scissors. But we threw in some surprises to challenge their imaginations: empty spools, random-sized boxes, pieces of cloth with various textures, buttons, pipe cleaners and seeds – stuff that might be trash but could become their treasures.  And all of this could be anything they wished.

I set up play areas around each room that rotated throughout the week. Having several good options gave our kids the power to choose as well as discover and create something original. There might be a table with paint, scissors, glue and paper; a music central with records and a player, along with kid-sized instruments; a building place with blocks, wood scraps, and Lego’s; or a make-believe area with mini-figures, costumes, and various props.  The lower kitchen cupboards were always fair game to create a percussive orchestra of various tones.  I just had to watch where I stepped.

Allow an open home that is kid-friendly.

Our parents confined toys to our bedrooms. The rest of the house was for the adults, so play was compartmentalized, separate from their world. We were spared the hovering of adults into our imaginary worlds, and they were spared the mess. But we wanted to draw a different family map and not segregate into adult versus child. We wanted everyone to feel comfortable in every room. Having hand-me-down furnishings helped: couch cushions made forts, puzzles took over our coffee table, and tricycles could be ridden in certain areas.

We wanted to send the message that God’s world is a big yes.  Our small home became an ever-changing frontier populated with cowboys and zoos, young artists and engineers that daily beckoned and asked, “What will we discover today?”

Our homes reflect our values.  Our family prefers relaxed and fun over formal and spotless. Maybe someday we will keep an elegantly designed interior, but not with young kids under our roof. (And, not with grandkids either!)

Encourage active, unstructured play …

… Not narrowed by a toy’s design or requiring adult supervision. Give a toddler a dazzling rainbow-colored gadget, with push-button tunes and automated movement, and the child will end up playing with its box. What every child wants are open-ended choices, not scripted options.

There is solid research that young minds that are engaged and curious develop stronger connections than from passive experiences. So “batteries not included” is a great motto. If a stuffed animal has a programmed voice, our kids won’t imagine an original conversation. The more primitive the toy is, the better.  Why not create imaginary friends out of clothespins driving shoes for automobiles into feather pillow-mountains rising from a carpet sea?

Something significant is at stake: We want to place the incentive inside our kids. We can take shortcuts by using enticements that are outside our children:  someone else’s clever invention of glittering shapes and sounds. But play is our kids’ best opportunity to develop their own unique voices.  This is how children discover their own gifts and passions.  We want to grow that fire within.

Our values can determine our Toyland. Beyond safety and age guidelines, we can look for quality items that transition into older use. The most used toy in our home was a set of plain wooden blocks. We also liked toys that were aesthetically pleasing, not gaudy, ones that encouraged role-playing or problem solving without obvious choices for a predetermined outcome. Walk down any toy aisle and you quickly realize how quality play for kids does not come easy – or cheap.

Less is more.

If we are engulfed in sound bites and engaging visuals, we can grow deaf to the subtle whispers of honest, raw creative moments. Children who are over stimulated by battery noise and flashy images may struggle to appreciate the quieter joys of digging in the sand or singing to themselves in the silence.

What drives me to fill every space with activity and sounds? Why do I complicate my life with the clutter of consumerism? When was the last time I flew a kite, or turned off the TV and made up a story, or built a cardboard-box fort with my child? Young minds need room to breathe, places to hear their own imaginative voices. I can lead my child down the path of inspiration rather than the path of least resistance.

Be an accelerator pedal, not a brake.

Think of the smell of creativity rising from a fresh big box of crayons. With all colors untouched, each crayon is equally inviting, from magenta to silver to lime. The newly opened box gives us permission to try a different hue rather than reach for the predictable primaries.

In cautious moments, I want to overly censor discovery, to simplify my child’s life (and mine) by removing some crayons, allowing only my favorite colors. After all, a parent is the child’s primary protector. But we can also be the enthusiastic pushers of learning and wonder.

Coloring books have a standard of excellence: stay inside the lines. True, this develops eye-hand coordination. But those heavy black lines also discourage true expression and miss the crucial life skill of improvisation. If we loosen up, we can allow our children to color outside the lines, even outside the book, with any crayon they choose.

That is how our children view life, without boundaries or boredom, driven to experiment at every turn. Everything is mysterious. We want to applaud that fresh perspective, even within our own souls.  Playing in this good garden will grow our kids’ imaginations. And imagination is what can change the world.

I thank You God for this most amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.

—E. E. Cummings


This blog was compiled with excerpts from Mark and Jan Foreman’s book, Never Say No: Raising Big-Picture Kids.

Mark and Jan Foreman live in the San Diego area, where Mark is the lead pastor of North Coast Calvary Chapel. They are also the parents of Jon and Tim Foreman of the band Switchfoot. Mark is the author of Wholly Jesus and holds advanced degrees in theology and education and a Ph.D. in counseling and pastoral care. Jan is a gifted teacher and artist and also facilitates partnerships with underprivileged women and children both locally and in developing countries.