Looking at the overcast expanse above with the tips of the trees stretching their branches, reaching, and clawing for the heavens within my gaze, I stirred my soup and marveled at the pleasure it brought me to cook a meal for my big family and several friends under the open sky. I knew they would be hungry and tired after the drive. After all, covered wagons were an amenity to be thankful for, but not known for their comfort and ease in journeying. With the baby on my hip, I spooned a big serving of savory stew into each bowl and nodded as each member thanked me profusely. Finally, I sat down and enjoyed a meal, myself, and wondered how far we had gone that day. It had been a long day. After supper, we all retired to our blankets under the wagon and tried to catch some sleep. Who knew how far we had left to travel tomorrow?
In reality, this story looked a bit different. Same scenery, different sets. A lone girl (sometimes with the aid of a friend or sibling) smiled and talked to herself and her imaginary historical friends in the middle of her parent’s woods behind the house with an old bent pot from her mother tied between two small saplings. She held a baby doll in one hand and a stirring stick in the other. The pot was full of dirt, leaves, water, and bark and resembled a bad mud puddle to be avoided. A pile of pokey pine branches and needles underneath a bouncy lower tree branch served as a makeshift bed and covered wagon whose only owner and master was the imagination of a child.
This kind of day occurred nearly every day between the ages of four and eleven.
I remember my childhood with fondness and often laugh with my husband as we recount crazy imaginative games we would play in preparation of growing up and facing the trials of adulthood. Our childhood filled with imagination gave us many gifts to guide us through life at every stage. The gifts of kindness, humility, charity, and love, only to name a few. As I raise a curious, silly, and social little boy, my childhood games of pretend and make believe pop back into my head and remind me to encourage my son in those ways.
It’s not just about growing imagination. It’s about growing virtue. Imagination is an essential part of our moral formation and a great tool to grow virtue!
Let me explain in a more applicable manner. When my fourteen month old son runs to the cabinet and picks up an over-sized bowl and then begins to stir with one of my many spatulas, he’s imitating and imagining.
He picks up the empty spatula,
holds it to his mouth,
makes an eating sound,
and then gives a comical cheesy smile while clutching his tummy.
He then dips it back in and spoons a bite to my mouth and waits. It’s not an empty spoon to him. It’s a tasty dish that he worked to make, and then offered to share with those he loved. He often loads the dishwasher with his utensils after he’s shared and signs “all done” to me as he happily walks off to go imagine with something or someone else.
What wonder is his little mind! What wonder it is to see his heart on display through his imagination! What wonder it is to see him learn virtue in these beginning stages of life! This imagination is a tool to be used to grow him in charity and kindness as he shares, hard work and perseverance as he helps me clean, and more as his mind develops everyday!
Fourteen months is really young still, but I’m of the impression that you can help your child play and imagine from day one. I would like to share some ways and toys that we use to help cultivate imagination in this house, even at itty bitty toddler stage.
Grocery Cart and/or Kitchen: I mentioned his cooking earlier, and he stores all of my pots and pans and bowls in his little cart and pushes it through the house collecting things. Sometimes he puts a doll or bear in the child’s seat! We also just acquired a pretty neat little play kitchen second hand at a steal, and he adores it. He loves making pretend soup and tea and giving us sips!
Baby dolls: Yes, I have a boy. But there’s no good reason that boys cannot play with dolls, and Eliot is quite fascinated with babies. He puts their clothes on and off, uses a bath scrubbie to rub their heads, feeds them a bottle, and rocks them in his arms. He’s so tender with them and I can see his mind pick up more and more with his baby dolls and apply it when he sees a real baby!
Blanket forts: He brings his animals and pillows in the fort and pretends to sleep! And honestly, what parent doesn’t want to make a blanket fort and relive their awesome childhood memories! We often do blanket forts for movie nights and rainy days.
Phones: In this day and age, everyone has a phone. Even kids. I’m not saying I advocate phones for little ones because I really don’t see the point when they can use their mother’s for any necessary talking, however, babies love to imitate! It wasn’t long before Eliot started putting every little toy, hot wheel, and piece of bread against his ear to babble. We gave him his grandfather’s old flip phone with the loose parts and battery missing and Eliot is quite taken with it. He walks around chatting and we can hear his inflection changing everyday. He’s turning into such a little boy!
Books: I can’t leave out the most magical tool of imagination growth, and even at this young age, toddlers need to have someone read aloud to them. Just listen to Read Aloud Revival for all the great reasons why! I may write another post containing our favorites at this age. Books are things I splurge on and are by far the biggest collection of anything Eliot owns, even over clothes and toys!
Right now, these are the tools we use to help Eliot grow and imagine. It’s such a gift to help shape a little mind and access his creative brain. All I can leave you with is the thought that your child’s—any child’s—imagination is a beautiful, wonderful gift, and as guides and parents responsible for shaping a new generation, we shouldn’t squander this opportunity!
Have you played pretend with your little one today?