Mama OT is honored to welcome Annie Groves as its newest guest blogger. Annie is a mama to two (soon to be three!) precious girls and today she will be addressing the topic of childhood imagination — perplexing nicknames, what happens when imagination comes to life, and tips for helping you engage your child’s imagination. Enjoy!
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My daughter, just shy of four years old, gave herself an imaginary name that stuck with us for well over two months. If you and I were to meet in the park as complete strangers and we went through the formalities of introductions, my daughter would have introduced herself as Kada (Kay-duh). It might go something like this:
You: Hi! What’s your name?
Me: My name is Annie, and this is Ellie and Claire.
Ellie: My name’s not Ellie! It’s Kada!
Me: (Somewhat nervous at her daughter’s insistence upon being called an imaginary name) She likes to be called Kada…
You: Ooooh… Nice to meet you!
Pretty soon, strangers in the park, her friends, and sometimes Yours Truly were calling this spunky three year old by a name she completely dreamed up on her own.
Enter the world of imagination.
We are trained as parents to look for signs of imagination. At our pediatrician’s office are flyers asking us to look for imaginative play by the age of 18 months. Does your child use pretend play? When both my daughters began interacting with dolls and animals beyond tight snuggles, I knew they were developing their sense of imagination and mentally checked off that milestone in my head. Imaginative play? Check!
Having not been formally trained in the world of psychology or child rearing (remember how they just hand you your baby in the hospital and shoo you out the door?), I figured we would encounter a more developed sense of imagination as my children grew, but I hadn’t thought much about parenting through imagination and creativity.
Quite honestly? I was bewildered at my daughter’s insistence of using a made up name with every single human being she encountered. My husband and I wondered at her imagination that seemed to explode at every hour of the day. One day, we were piling into the car and my daughter, who loves dinosaurs with every ounce of her being, exclaimed, “MOM! Wait! Don’t close the door!!!” When I asked why, she explained, “There are six dinosaurs and they’re not done getting in the car!” Cute, right? Oh wait. There’s more. “Mom! Only some of them can fit in the car so two of them are going to walk outside while we drive.”
I loved hearing about what was going on inside her head but couldn’t quite wrap my mind around how to protect her creativity while still maintaining reasonable social conduct. Many people told me it was a sign of intelligence. And this was nice, because parents like to hear that their kid is potentially smart, but I really wanted to engage my daughter, not just watch it happen.
Remember that part about not being an expert? About not knowing how to navigate this portion of parenthood? I tried several approaches with my daughter about this name deal. At first I went with it. And then it got frustrating and so I insisted that I call her by her given name because we are her parents and we gave her the name Ellie. Thankfully, my daughter is determined and was unphased by my discouragement. After a while, I gave in. We occasionally called her Kada, encouraged her to ask politely that others call her Kada, and after two months she was back to Ellie.
I’m so thankful for our raw introduction to a child’s mind. Our daughter gave us a gift of freedom as we watched her learn to express her thoughts and ideas in creative play. At the same time she was learning to assert her autonomy, we were learning how to install helpful parameters for her imagination.
Here are some tips my husband and I learned in the process:
1. Engage your child’s imagination. One of the easiest ways to engage your child’s imagination is to ask questions. She will be allowed freedom to explore her imagination while you, the parents, gain understanding into what interests your child and why she might take on peculiar behaviors. For instance, one of my favorite conversations occurred after I caught my daughter eating plants:
Me: El! What is in your mouth?!
El: opens mouth to reveal chewed up plants
Me: Why are you eating plants?! … (at this point a flip switched and I went from being annoyed at her eating plants to realizing her actions might expose imaginative play) Are you pretending to be a dinosaur?
El: smiles YES! I’m an Ankylosaurus!
Had I just addressed the plant eating issue (which, of course we talked about after understanding her herbivore practices), I would have missed out on her world and how she was putting into practice different concepts and ideas she was learning.
2. Set appropriate boundaries for your child’s use of imagination. Imagination is awesome, but small humans are certainly capable of pushing the boundaries when it comes to creative thought and play. When your child starts blaming poor behavior on his imagination or lying as a part of “imagining,” then it’s important to address poor behavior.
We encountered a bit of an attitude issue when El insisted on being called Kada. She grew disrespectful when others corrected her. My husband and I finally figured out an approach that honored her imagination while still allowing her to be kind to others. When we introduced ourselves to new friends, we trained Ellie to say, “I like to be called Kada.”
3. Have fun and play along! Pretend to be a dinosaur or a mommy shark or daddy hippo. Go on adventure walks with your kiddos, asking them to tell you about what they see and what they think about their discoveries. You might find yourself noticing every small flower along the sidewalk or even journeying on a hunt to find pirates. Find what she’s interested in and live in that world for just a half hour. Watch the bond that forms between you and your child.
In order to make the most of your toddlers’/preschoolers’ imaginative development, make sure you read lots of books with them and give time and space for their worlds to expand with art projects, make believe, and limited TV time.
Bonus for you – their imagination makes for great memories for mom and dad!
If you have a creative toddler/preschooler – enjoy! You are embarking on a journey bigger than yourself and it will prove to be helpful for your child’s brain development. Don’t freak out. Use it as an opportunity to be a kid again and make the most of those tender years!
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Annie Groves is a fellow UCLA grad who became a mama two years after receiving her diploma. After five years of full time youth ministry in Hawaii, Annie is on an indefinite ‘mama sabbatical’ while her kids are pre-school aged. She currently lives in Keizer, OR with her husband JD (also a youth pastor), two sweet girls ages 2 & 4, and is expecting girl number three in less than two months!! Annie enjoys writing, photography, and coffee.
To read more of Annie’s writing, visit her blog at www.anniegroves.com.