Building Imagination


Imagination is the ability to be creative, to be resourceful and to form ideas or images outside of the senses. It is a part of the brain that allows fancy and free reign to dream. Is imagination important? You betcha! It is important for language development, physical, social and emotional development, and for problem solving skills. I personally think it is vital to our well being. We need to be able to imagine. It influences everything that we do. Therefore we need to be building imagination.

For children, it is vital that we don’t stifle their imaginations and their abilities to use them. Using their imaginations helps them to understand the world around them, assists them in learning to use critical thinking and encourages emotional and social growth. 

It is so sad to see how we, as a society, are not putting a high value on developing imaginations and creativity. Our children are getting sucked dry. We need our inventors, our entrepreneurs, and scientists. They need to believe that they can change the world. And it starts with their imagination. 


I am a big believer in using imagination and want my girls to develop it freely. Back in August, we were eating dinner and one of my girls, Soraya, suddenly asked, “Why can’t I see my imagination if I use it all the time?” Good question darling! Sadly, Google did not have an answer for that. But I was so proud of the fact that she recognized that she uses her imagination often. We have tried to limit the girls’ toys to mostly ones that foster and encourage imaginative play. Free play is a large part of our day.

One statement that frustrates me no end is “I’m bored.” It is like the sound of people chewing to me – enough to make me shudder or shake my head in dismay. What is my response to this statement when my girls dare to utter it?  ”You have toys to play with, books to read and a great imagination. There is no reason whatsoever you should be bored. Think again.” I usually get an eye roll (five years old and they have mastered the eye roll) or an exasperated response like “Fine”. One day, Soraya even said in retaliation “If my imagination wears out it is your fault”. I just challenged her to try and wear her imagination out. 

twin girls running down a railroad - building imagination
There’s a world of pure imagination just waiting for you


Probably the easiest way to help you is to list some ways we can encourage, develop and foster our children’s imaginations. The main way imagination is developed is through play. This is important to remember, no matter the age of your child. Even as adults we need to play to let our imaginations roam. I did a vlog and blog on play-based learning, that explores why we need to just let our children play. You can read and see it here.


Encourage imaginative play and stop trying to manage their play.

I think this is hard for parents, to just allow play to happen. We are bombarded from the moment our child is born with what we should be doing with them in order for their lives to be successful. Make sure they are doing a sport. Learn an instrument. Join the Scouts or something similar. Jam pack their afternoons so that they always have something on… And then we are left with no time for play. 

The other hard thing to do is to not manage how our children are playing. So what if they are using a toy in a way other than what it was designed for? My girls often tip over their little shopping trolley/cart and make it into a bus for their toys. Their little kitchen has often been an apartment building, with the microwave as one apartment and the oven as another, and the sink is the pool. Over the summer the girls would take their kitchen stuff so they could do water play. Are they pool toys? No, but they had restaurants and made cakes, cookies, and smoothies, etc. having the time of their lives and getting the neighborhood children involved. Allow it to continue for as long as possible.

Don’t give the imaginative play a time limit. I understand that at times you need to go somewhere or do something else and need to wrap up the playtime, but if you don’t have to and they are enjoying themselves, don’t tell them to stop so they can do a puzzle or a different game. 

Get out of the house

If you have a backyard then let your children roam. It doesn’t need to be big for imaginations to be at work. We are fortunate to have a wonderful back yard and have a trampoline, a swing set and fort, and a small playhouse. Down the back is a wooded section and when it rains that is the best area for having muddy adventures and treasure finding. The fort has been host to tea parties, pirate mutinies, and time travel. The trampoline has been a ship, a rocket, and the moon. We don’t limit out of the house to the backyard. Nature walks are great. So is walking the streets around you. Parks. Playgrounds. Libraries. Art galleries. Etc. As the author Nancy Tillman would say, “the world is a wonderland waiting for you.” Use it. 

Get toys that encourage imagination

While it is true that pretty much any toy can encourage imagination, there are some (that are sometimes called “open-ended toys”) that really are the cream of the crop. 

  • Lego and Duplo
  • Playmobil
  • Magnetic blocks or wooden blocks
  • Dollhouses and dolls
  • Small kitchens with pots and pans and pretend food items
  • Playdough
  • Water beads
  • Cars and trucks
  • Cash registers, tool kits, doctors kits
  • Animals (zoo or farm)

Don’t limit it to toys. Use household objects.

Who loves a good blanket fort? They are the things childhood is made of. My brothers and I used to make blanket forts with different rooms. We each had our own room. We went all out. Pots and pans make great musical instruments. Wooden spoons are great puppets, paddles/oars, guitars. Our pantry is apparently an elevator. The kitchen chairs are often rearranged to be a school bus. Coloring books are ice skates. Canned goods become bridges and towers. It is not a matter of not having any toys, but rather active imaginations that are going beyond just the toys to make what they see happening in the stories and play. 

girls dressed as princesses and posing
Princesses can go anywhere

Dressing up

To quote The Wiggles “Dressing up is so much fun. You can dress as anyone. You can use any clothes you find…Ooh-ooh, I’m dressing up in style.” It really is fun. There is something powerful about being able to dress up as who you want to be. You don’t need the latest and greatest costumes that are out there (though they are fun!). Simply use what you have on hand. Old shirts and ties. Hats and gloves. Scarves and skirts. Visit the dollar stores for beads and sunglasses. 

I have a friend in Australia who put me onto a great idea. She used to take her daughter to the local thrift store/Op Shop and let her pick out whatever she wanted for her dress-up box (to a certain dollar limit). That dress-up box was a fabulous collection! E had picked out some great pieces. And they were such a mix and based on what she was feeling when they went shopping. I am looking forward to doing this with my girls. But we might need a bigger dress-up box first. Ours is overflowing, thanks to consignment stores where I was able to pick up some princess dresses, and because I make things for the girls.

I never know who is going to come from my girls’ room. It might be Cinderella with a green bowler hat and a long scarf. Or it could be Belle with gardening gloves, a tutu shawl and a baby down her dress (because they still won’t use the baby carriers I made them so they didn’t stretch out their shirts stuffing baby dolls down them). They truly follow The Wiggles’ adage of dressing up with style. 

Big boxes

Oh, what a glorious thing. A box. It can be anything you want it to be. I don’t think boxes will ever go out of style with children. 

girl driving car made out of cardboard box
Boxes are the best

Read. A lot.

A book is a gateway to other worlds and people. You use your imagination to visualize the descriptions of places and characters. Have you ever noticed how you imagine a character looks and sounds is very different from how your friends think it is? That’s the power of imagination. I believe in reading books full of rich words and colorful descriptions to children. The more we expose our children to books the greater the experiences they have. 

Use all your senses

It is fun to play and use all your senses. Go for a walk and hear, look, taste, touch and smell. Before you smell something try and think what it could possibly smell like. What does it feel like? etc. Explore using your senses and wonders await.

Turn off the tv (just limit the use)

I am NOT a person who says no screen time at all. We definitely watch TV at home. Now, I don’t let them watch certain shows (even if they are kids programs) and we limit the amount of time. But I do find that my girls will take what they have seen on a show and incorporate it into their free play and I don’t mind that at all. If the girls do become too needy though, in their desire to watch tv, I tell them to go and play for 30 mins and 2 hours later they are still playing. 

Sing! Make noise! 

One of my favorite things to do. Sing! You don’t have to be a good singer or songwriter, just make noise. Be loud and sing proud. Use your voice in funny ways. Make up ways of talking. What would something sound like if it could talk? Make up those sounds. My girls are often speaking in different voices and it cracks me up what they think something might sound like – especially their tummies when telling me what they feel like eating. We sometimes have conversations in song and it is a lot of fun to listen to their lyrics and melodies. Kira and Soraya are now making up their own songs. Their favorite one they wrote is “Supernaked Man”, which they sing loudly and proudly. 

Be uninhibited & silly

It takes practice for us as adults to be uninhibited and silly again. Be that with your children. Don’t let what other people might think of you stop you from having fun. Do we really care if they see us being a dinosaur or a sea monster? When we were recently in Australia we took the girls to a place I went to many time as a child. They were excited because there were sand and water. We dug in the sad, ran about and had fun. Some other families (strangers to us) came to have dinner by the water and their children played with my girls. I joined in on the fun, being a seaweed monster. I honestly don’t know who was having more fun – me or the kids.

But what surprised me was a couple of the parents coming up to me at the end and making comments about how much fun I was and how they couldn’t do that. Yes, they could! We all can. It has nothing to do with our ages. I am an older mum and am quite willing to get down and play with my kids. We don’t need to be young parents. Just a little bit silly and a whole lot of “I don’t care what you think. I am having fun with my kids.” It does take practice. But follow your children’s leads. Do what they do. The rest will come naturally. 

Make up stories

Have fun making up stories together. One thing I love to do is to show the girls pictures of famous artworks and ask them to tell me the story of what they see. I look forward to doing this at art galleries. It is also fun to say to them “Tell me a story” and see where their imaginations will take them. At 5 years old they are often drawing from tv shows or books, but the older they get the more I see their own ideas come through. I once did the exercise of having my 6th grade students write a story based on what they saw in the picture. My expectation was a lot higher than it should have been. It was a struggle for them, even as we talked about what we saw and what could be happening.

sign on brick wall saying imagine
Do it. Imagine.

Come with me and you’ll be
in a world of pure imagination
Take a look and you’ll see into your imagination…There is no life I know
to compare with pure imagination
Living there you’ll be free if you truly wish to be…There is no place to go
to compare with your imagination
So go there to be free if you truly wish to be

Thank you to the songwriters of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for writing “Pure Imagination”. I love this song. This is what we need to do with our children – and even with ourselves.  We all need to be free to live in a world of pure imagination. Let’s encourage our children to be imaginative and provide the opportunities to soar. 


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