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What to expect at this age
Perhaps your grade-schooler's bed is currently serving as a mermaid's rock, pirate vessel, or dragon's cave. Or maybe her imagination seems to have faded a bit since she was younger. Either way, children are hardwired to be imaginative, and that doesn't change as your child grows. Older kids just may be more private about it.
How your grade-schooler's imagination works
Your grade-schooler is an old hand at thinking abstractly – the couch easily becomes a desert island – but these days she may be somewhat low-key about her fantasy games.
Grade-schoolers are more self-conscious and can easily feel embarrassed when an adult (or even another child) notices they're pretending to be a character from a favorite book or a pop star. Many turn to writing stories, drawing pictures or cartoons, or creating computer graphics as "acceptable" outlets for their strong artistic impulses.
Why encouraging imagination is important
An active imagination helps your grade-schooler in more ways than you might think.
It improves vocabulary. Children who play make-believe games or listen to lots of fairy tales, stories from books, or tales spun by those around them tend to have noticeably better vocabularies.
It encourages independence. Pretending allows your grade-schooler to be anyone he likes, practice things he's learned, and make situations turn out the way he wants. Stories where the brave young boy journeys through the haunted castle or imagined scenarios of rescuing his whole family from space invaders give your child a sense that he can be powerful and in control, even in unfamiliar or scary situations.
It teaches problem solving. Dreaming up imaginary situations teaches your child to think creatively in real life. Some research shows that children who are imaginative tend to remain so as they get older and become better problem solvers. These "imaginators" are more resourceful when it comes to coping with challenges and difficult situations.
How to spark your grade-schooler's imagination
Read books. Even if your grade-schooler is reading on her own, it's a good idea to keep looking at books together and to find ways to make reading fun. Besides the valuable cuddle time, talking with her about the stories will help fuel her imagination.
Expose her to different authors and different kinds of writing – science fiction, historical fiction, poetry, diaries. Also be sure to show her that there are books for finding out about things, like reference and other nonfiction books to answer questions of all sorts. This shows her that there's a huge world out there and that it's all within her grasp.
Share stories. Make up stories together. Your own tales will not only provide a sense of possibilities for your child's inventive thinking, they'll demonstrate the basics of creating characters and plots. And using your child as the main character helps expand her sense of self and lets her imagine having fantastic adventures.
If your child enjoys making up her own stories, encourage her writing skills: Prompt her to put her stories on paper, either by handwriting or by typing on the computer, and bind the pages into little books she can illustrate.
Some kids will take right off with this project; others will need a bit more direction. ("Why don't you write a sentence that describes the lion, then a sentence about how Sarah felt when he escaped from his cage?") Many grade-schoolers enjoy keeping journals filled with entries about their daily encounters, flights of fancy, and concerns.
Relish artwork. Your grade-schooler is now more goal-oriented than when she was younger, so with art projects she may be focusing more on the outcome than on the process. Do what you can to help her enjoy being creative and not get frustrated with results that are less than perfect.
If she asks for your help drawing or making something with her hands, resist the urge to jump in and do it for her. Instead, walk her through each step, asking what elements make up a house, for instance, or what details she remembers about her classroom if she's drawing her school.
You can also cut out pictures from magazines and catalogs that may inspire her to create her own versions. And be sure to supply examples of other artwork – from classical to modern – so she can see that art includes a wide range of interpretations, perspectives, and styles.
Make music. By now your grade-schooler may be eager and ready for music lessons. If you're unsure, ask an instructor to help you evaluate your child's readiness.
Whether or not she plays an instrument, you can still fill her world with music. Listen to a variety of tunes together and encourage her to take part by singing, dancing, or playing instruments – real, toy, or homemade. She can follow along with a song being played or make up her own, complete with lyrics. (Be sure to have your video camera or audio recorder on hand!)
Encourage pretend play. Children learn a lot from dramatizing events from their daily – and fantasy – lives. When your grade-schooler invents a scenario and plot line and peoples it with characters, she develops social and verbal skills.
She'll work out emotional issues as she replays scenarios that involve feeling happy, sad, frightened, or safe. She might reenact the TV she watched today, for example, or role-play different ways to handle fights with her sister.
She'll also better understand the idea of cause and effect as she imagines how you or her friend or teacher would behave in a particular situation. She's also practicing discipline, especially since she'll be making the rules herself. (The complex rules kids come up with always astound adults.)
Provide props. Towels become turbans, plastic bracelets become precious jewels, old bathroom rugs turn into magic carpets, and that moth-eaten collection of stuffed animals transforms your child's bedroom into a rainforest, animal hospital, or farm.
Because children playing imaginative games love to assume the role of someone else – a parent, a baby, a pet – a simple object like a toy cash register or a chalkboard can be all it takes to spark creative play. Since most of the action happens inside your child's head, the best props are often generic, and fancy costumes modeled after superheroes really aren't needed.
Providing a special box or trunk to hold pretending gear can make playtime even more of an adventure, especially if you occasionally restock it when your child's not looking. Including more than one of the same item can help, too, since two pirates or princesses are always better than one.
Use the computer thoughtfully. There are quality programs that can spark a grade-schooler's imagination, from drawing, painting, and music software to geography games. And the internet can be invaluable for looking up topics of interest and exposing your child to different cultures and ideas from around the world.
Let her be bored. As parents, we tend to think we need to provide our children with constant enrichment. It's painful to hear "I'm booooored!" on unscheduled Saturday afternoons. But don't feel compelled to whip up an activity every time she whines.
Being forced to figure out how to amuse herself may lead to the most inventive and absorbing games your child will play. You never know what you might learn yourself when she decides to see if one roll of Scotch tape can run from the upstairs bathroom all the way to the backyard, or whether couch cushions balanced on blocks make as good a fort as a blanket slung over the kitchen chairs.
How to live with your grade-schooler's imagination
Set flexible limits. Creating and enforcing rules – paint at the table, not on the carpet – is crucial for everyone's sake. But if you can, let your child live for a bit with the reminders of his flights of fancy. The fact that the dining room table isn't available for dinner because it's hosting a stuffed animal tea party gives you the perfect excuse to have a "picnic" on the living room floor.
Keep messes manageable. Yes, pretending to be pioneers on the Oregon Trail may lead to a roomful of camping equipment. While it doesn't hurt to allow some temporary disarray, at this age your child is ready to learn to clean up after himself and to respect the fact that certain parts of the house may be off-limits for playing.
If you have the space, designate a room (or part of a room) as an arts and crafts corner where your child is free to create without worrying about making a mess. A few containment strategies can help, too: Old buttondown shirts make great smocks when worn backward with the sleeves cut off, plastic sheeting under the modeling clay construction site can protect the rug, and large sheets of butcher paper over the crafts table can prevent an encrusted layer of multicolored paints or glue.
Encourage wild ideas. When an enthusiastic grade-schooler says, "Let's build a roller-coaster in the backyard!" it's easy to be practical and point out the expense, building code violations, and safety hazards. But wild ideas can be the seeds of inventive thinking. It's better for his creativity if you answer, "Why don't you start by building a small-scale model for your action figures?" and point out the long-unused toy train track that he can fashion into a mini amusement park outside. (Be prepared to help out!)
Enjoy the offbeat. When your grade-schooler decides his favorite clothing color is black and he wants to wear it (along with his lime green belt) from head to toe every day, cut him some slack. Adults tend to view only certain behavior and fashions as acceptable, but your child is still developing his sense of what's attractive or appealing. Encourage your child – who is now beginning to be exposed to peer pressure – to feel good about his favorite colors, flavors, stories, subjects, and other individual likes and dislikes as examples of what makes him unique.