Imagination in the Young Child
Imagination is the ability to visualize something that is not physically present.
Infants have little, if any, imagination. If the familiar is gone, distress and tears usually follow. A new situation, such as being left alone, can be painful to the child until the child learns that this situation is safe or parents return.
Experiences, positive and negative, create a certain level of expectation in the young child. The child is learning: If I'm hungry, will there be food? If I'm tired, will I be able to rest peacefully? If I'm wet and uncomfortable, will someone come and change me? Experiences create what the child can visualize with objects not being in sight.
As a child's basic needs are met, or not met as the case may be, the child learns to picture things that are not with him or her. The child learns that food appears when he cries, at predictable times or haphazardly. As physical needs are met, the toddler begins to learn to imagine.
Imagination in the child under six is experience-driven. To help the child build correct images of the world in his or her mind, reality and language content around those experiences need to be accurate.
We can be of great assistance to the young child by giving them fact-and reality-based experiences involving all senses—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling.
Until about age seven the child is in a sensitive period of growth for taking in information. The child's mind perceives every event as real. For example, the emotional and mental impact of seeing violence on television or video games affects the child's brain as if the incident had occurred right in front of the child. The child's mind cannot differentiate between real and make-believe. A murder on the T.V. screen is perceived as real.
The young child needs a diet of accurate information and facts in order to help the imagination develop effectively. After age seven, learning is fueled by the imagination. As adults, we must draw on our imaginations to decide the lives we want to live. These seeds of imagination in the young child need to be protected and nurtured.
We protect the child from violence and hostile images. We use the right word for objects in the child's environment. Water is not ''wa-wa.'' A rubber duck is not a ''duckie-poo.'' We model acceptable behavior with our movements and our words.
We can nurture the imagination with a fun and simple game called ''What's Missing?'' To play, gather six to ten small items: for example, a comb, a pencil, a fork, a spoon, a clothespin and an eraser. Name each item with the children, so they will know the correct names. Ask the children to turn around or hide their eyes for ten seconds by counting to ten. For an added challenge count in another language, or lengthen attention by counting to twenty or thirty.
While the children are looking away, take one item and hide it behind your back. Ask, ''What's missing?''
If the children have difficulty, bring the item out and say, ''The comb was missing. Let's do another object.''
Most children from age 2 1/2 to 6 years love this game and will play everyday for months with a variety of items. Increase the number of items every few days, or take multiple items away to increase the level of difficulty. Kit Carson, of Pony Express fame, purportedly could recall a hundred items after viewing them for one minute. That's imagination!
The imagining mind of the child younger than six years needs to be nurtured and protected. We need to protect the child from hurtful and violent incidents, real or make-believe. The child needs accurate experiences and correct language to nourish imagination. We need to offer games like ''What's missing?'' to help the child learn to visualize things that are not physically present.
A vivid and accurate imagination will help our children design and create a marvelous life with the resources they have available.
Next week: The Positive Psychology of Childhood
This is the seventh in a series of articles focusing on a child's perspective.
Kids Talk™ is a column dealing with early childhood development issues written by Maren Stark Schmidt. Mrs. Schmidt founded a Montessori school and holds a Masters of Education from Loyola College in Maryland.
She has over 25 years experience working with young children and holds teaching credentials from the Association Montessori Internationale. She is also Creative Director for a video-based reading series for children ages three to six, The Shining Light Reading Series. Contact her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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