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The importance of imagination and play

By Brian McNeill

Taking a break from our technology-driven society has given me new opportunity to think about my growing up years. It was a time of very few school opportunities and of family financial struggles. It was also a time where I developed creativity and imagination.

"If you can dream it, you can do it!” - Walt Disney

I grew up in the 1970s and 80s on a small dairy farm. The closest town was more than 10 miles away. As a young person it seemed like we lived on an island.

I remember my excitement when the Sears catalog would arrive at our home. I’d thumb through each page, encountering toys of every shape, color and design. I would never be able to own those toys, but the pictures inspired me to play. I used boxes, markers and anything I could find to replicate the toys in those catalogs. My imagination helped me create items I couldn't buy.

In his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown says: “By playing, we learn about the mystery and excitement that the world can hold in a treehouse, an old tire swing or a box of crayons.” This really connects with how I used my imagination while growing up.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge." - Albert Einstein

Imagination is the doorway to possibilities. It's where creativity, ingenuity, and thinking outside the box begin. Imaginative and creative play is how children learn about the world. During imaginative play, children manipulate materials, express themselves verbally and non-verbally, plan, act, interact, react, and try different roles. Whether with dolls, vehicles, blocks, rocks, cardboard or boxes, great opportunities for learning and development are possible when children participate in creative play.

Research published in the journal Pediatrics shows that play is both essential for healthy child development and decreasingly available to today’s youth. And an article published by The Guardian gives teachers and other youth workers a glimpse into how imagination can foster the best learning in young people. In this technology-driven society, we need to encourage the young people in our lives to use their imagination.

So how do we get youth to use their imaginations and play in a technology-focused world? Here are a couple ideas to get you started:
  • Create distraction-free time for youth to explore. There must be some boundaries put in place; but providing the time, space and tools to play can spark their imaginations.
  • Involve youth in activities where they can use their creativity in a team. This experience not only provides a place and time to use their imagination but it creates opportunity to work with others. This will sharpen their teamwork skills for school and into the future.

What are ways you help youth use their imagination?

-- Brian McNeill, Extension educator

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  1. Thank you Brian for your insights on the need for play and how it supports creativity and imagination! I'm guilty to say I like to play with my food. I feel with a basic understanding of nutrition and food safety concepts, cooking and food preparation can be creative playground. While some food preparations involve chemical reactions that might need to follow specific measurements, cooking items like salads, skillets, hot-dishes and simple snacks have a lot of room for being creative. Thanks again Brian for reminding us the importance of providing opportunities for youth to use their imagination!

  2. Carrie, What a great idea to "play with food!" Thanks for sharing this idea. I think no matter what the topic it is always fun to put a twist on it. Yes there is a lot of STEM work with food and is always fun to see the reactions of the food but also fun to see the youth and their reactions. We need more time to play with our food!!


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