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I distinctly remember handing a plastic, toy pony to a small child several years ago. He picked up the pony, looked at it strangely, and then said, “It doesn’t have buttons. What does it do?” I explained that it doesn’t do anything. You use your imagination, come up with an idea, and you play.
He looked at me with disbelieving eyes. This pony didn’t make noise. It didn’t move on its own. What could possibly be fun about that?
After some awkward silence, we found a game we could play with the pony and a few other farm animals. We had a lot of fun, but his look of confusion and disbelief stayed with me.
I have two children of my own now, and they enjoy playing all kinds of imaginative games. They have almost as much fun with the boxes their toys come in as they do with the toys themselves. We’ve built forts from blankets and chairs. We’ve made up silly stories at bedtime. The couch has been transformed into a doctor’s office.  Shoe boxes have been serving trays for a restaurant. Stuffed animals have been guests at a tea party. The possibilities for imaginative play have been endless, and my concrete, reality-loving brain has delighted in it.
And then my oldest reached school age. And he was miserable at school.
He was frustrated because everything had to be real. Every story he wrote had to be about something that actually happened to him. Imagination had very little place. On the rare occasion that he would be encouraged to create something or use his imagination, he would come home elated. We began to intentionally supplement imaginative learning at home. He needed it. He was happier that way. And, he’s a kid. Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging imagination rather than squashing it out of kids?
Now, hear me out. I know there’s a learning curve that requires a child to differentiate between reality and fantasy. I understand that the development of logic depends upon it. I get that there is a time and a place for imagination. But, I’m troubled by the idea that we are raising a whole generation of children who pick up a plastic pony and have no idea what to do with it unless it comes with batteries and buttons. I’m concerned about a generation that does not see the value of the imagination of children.
When children go through trauma, one of the most important things counselors and therapists utilize to help a child process what has happened is play therapy. Through play, a child often feels safer to express the painful and horrific reality of abuse. Play enables children to connect the dots in age-appropriate ways. Play is real. Imagination is real and important.
In my developmental psychology course in college, we discussed the development of logical thought capability. Somewhere around the age of 7 or 8, the brain gains the ability to decipher which container holds the most water, even if the containers are different depths and shapes. [1] The logical progression of yesterday, today, and tomorrow begins to make more sense. This development happens in many kids right around first or second grade, which used to be the age at which schooling became full day, and took on more of a traditional classroom feel – individual desks, regular homework assignments, and longer, lecture-style instruction.
As full-day schooling begins to be offered or required for younger ages, this traditional, lecture-oriented approach to instruction is becoming the modus operandi in classrooms that were once dominated by learning through play and imagination. I don’t offer this observation as a criticism of teachers in any way. I have nothing but respect for teachers. It is a criticism of a system that increasingly cares more about students’ abilities to test well at earlier ages than about their ability to function in the world after graduation. Teachers are doing the best they can in a terribly broken system, and I’m profoundly grateful for people who dedicate their lives to molding and shaping children through education. And many teachers are wonderful at encouraging imaginative learning as part of the school day. But, I wonder as we do more, teach more, instruct children earlier and earlier, and abandon imaginative and playful styles of learning, what the consequences will be for this generation.
And, it extends beyond the classroom. As a pastor, I know that spiritual development cannot be left solely up to the church. It is something that has to be reinforced at home. Similarly, we cannot expect schools to do and be everything for our kids. We can’t expect schools provide our children with their only opportunities to play. We can expect that play will be valued and seen as important, but we have to reinforce that at home, too. It has become more and more common for children to be involved in so many extracurricular activities that there is no time left for play. Every moment of every day is structured, ordered, and for the purpose of learning or achieving something. I wonder what this next generation will look like if we are raising children who are not encouraged to use their imaginations.
I recently came across a quote that is attributed to Albert Einstein. He said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you anywhere.” The shortest distance from point A to point B will always be a straight line, but that straight line may not really be the best way to go. Imagination is the ability to look at those two points and dream up another way. Imagination is the ability to think outside of everything that has been taught to you and to question if there might be a different way to go about it. Imagination isn’t hindered by principles of logic that are taught as immovable fact. Imagination is what leads to creation, invention, beauty, and progress.
If we want to raise a generation that finds cures for diseases, we need a generation that is unafraid to think outside the box. If we want to raise a generation that assists in bringing peace to troubled places, we need a generation that is unafraid to pursue peace in a whole new way. If we want to raise a generation that does more than parrot back what has been taught to them, we need to encourage the growth and development of imagination. We need to encourage our kids to play.
“When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.” – Fred Rogers
[1] This helpful link at Scholastic gives an idea of the logical capabilities of kids under the age of 6. There are some helpful ideas here for helping kids develop logical reasoning skills.