What to expect at this age
Chances are that your kindergartner's bed isn't really a bed right now at all — it's a spaceship, pirate vessel, or dragon's cave. Children are hardwired to be imaginative, and your kindergartner's imagination is operating at full tilt. You're likely to catch many glimpses of his make-believe games, since he probably isn't yet as private about these things as older kids tend to be.
Although you could sit by and watch, it's even better if you join in now and then. "A kindergartner's imagination develops naturally, but there's a lot you can do to spark it," says Kristi Alexander, a pediatric psychologist at
How your kindergartner's imagination works
Your kindergartner is used to thinking abstractly; the couch easily becomes a ship at sea, and his toast makes a perfectly plausible telephone. At this age he's also gotten the hang of group make-believe — playing "dinosaur chase" with his friends at recess — and complex role-playing, making up games with elaborate rules.
Why encouraging imagination is important
An active imagination helps your kindergartner in more ways than you might think.
Children who play imaginary games or listen to lots of fairy tales, stories read aloud from books, or tales spun by those around them tend to have noticeably better vocabularies.
Pretending allows your kindergartner to be anyone he wants, practice things he's learned, and make situations turn out the way he wants. Stories where the brave little tiger journeys through the nighttime forest or playacted scenes with your child rescuing his whole family from space invaders give him a sense that he can be powerful and in control even in unfamiliar or scary situations.
Learning social rules.
Getting along socially can be a challenge at any age. When your kindergartner joins the other kids in the sandbox to create a castle out of sand, sticks, and leaves, he's not only exploring a fantasy world, he's learning complex, real-world rules about sharing, social interaction, and resolving conflicts.
Dreaming up imaginary situations teaches your child to think creatively in real life. A study at
What you can do to spark your kindergartner's imagination
Read books. Reading stories together about unfamiliar lands and people is a good way to jump-start your child's fantasy life, and books that expand his vocabulary of words and images will help, too. (How can you imagine crossing a desert if you've never seen one?) With books, he can explore visual details, make up stories, and read to himself as much as he's able. If you're reading the text, stop often to explore the pictures and talk about what's happening: "Imagine how Tom must have felt when he lost his brother's baseball!" Encourage your kindergartner to make up his own endings to the stories you read. Read about the world, show him pictures of everything from beetles to pinwheels, and explore in further detail those things that interest him most.
Telling your own made-up stories is just as good for your child as reading a book together. Not only will your tales provide a sense of possibilities for his inventive thinking, they'll demonstrate the basics of creating characters and plots. And using your child as the main character is a great way to expand his sense of self.
Trade off lines of a story. While you're driving, say to your child, "Once upon a time there was a dog. He lived with a little boy, and they liked to go to the park. One day..." Then give your child a turn. Let him tell the fun parts, like naming the boy and the dog and describing the climax and the ending.
Your kindergartner may be adept by now at creating his own narratives and adventures. If you'd like to encourage his writing skills, prompt him to put his stories on paper, using pictures and simple words. Some kids will take right off; others will need a bit more direction ("Write down three words that describe the cat").
Relish his artwork
While your kindergartner may be more goal-oriented now than when he was younger, the process, rather than the product, is still the most important part of making art. Ask him how he made his creation, why he chose certain colors, and how he feels about it. He doesn't want or need to hear that his finished puppet "should look like this." When he does make something representational, like a picture of the family or a sculpted house, invite him to interpret it for you. Instead of "Oh, it's our family at the beach!" say, "What cool colors you've used! What's happening in this picture?"
Some kindergartners are ready for structured music lessons, while others need to be a bit older before making such a commitment. If you're unsure, ask a music instructor to help you evaluate your child's readiness. Either way, you can still fill his world with music. Listen to a variety of tunes together and encourage him to participate by singing, dancing, or playing instruments — real, toy, or homemade. He can follow along with a song being played or make up his own, complete with lyrics. (Be sure to have a video or audio recorder on hand!)
Encourage pretend play
Children learn a lot from dramatizing events from their daily — and fantasy — lives. When your kindergartner invents a scenario and plot line and peoples it with characters ("I'm the teacher and you're the student and it's sharing time"), he develops social and verbal skills. He'll work out emotional issues as he replays scenarios that involve feeling happy, sad, frightened, or safe. Imagining himself as a superhero, a horse, or a wizard makes him feel powerful and gives him a sense of what it's like to be in charge. And he'll develop his understanding of cause and effect as he imagines how you or his friend or his teacher would behave in a particular situation. He's also practicing discipline, especially since he'll be making the rules, whether by himself or along with a playmate (the array of intricate rules kids come up with always astounds adults).
Towels become turbans, plastic bracelets become precious jewels, old bathroom rugs turn into magic carpets, and that moth-eaten collection of stuffed animals transforms itself into a rain forest, animal hospital, or farm. Because kindergartners love to take on the role of someone else — a parent, a baby, a pet — a simple object like a toy cash register or a chalkboard can be all that's needed to spark creative play. Since most of the action happens inside your child's head, the best props are often generic, and detailed costumes modeled after specific superheroes or action figures aren't really the ticket.
Providing a special box or trunk to hold pretending paraphernalia can make fantasy play even more of an adventure, especially if you occasionally restock when your child's not looking ("Let's see what's in the trunk today!"). Including more than one of the same item can help, too, since two pirates or princesses are always better than one.
Use the computer judiciously.
Just because tech companies are churning out software for kids doesn't mean your child will turn out computer-illiterate if he doesn't do daily computer time. Still, some quality programs for kindergartners can spark your child's imagination, from drawing, painting, and music software to virtual treasure hunts. And the Internet can be an invaluable resource for looking up topics of interest — hunting down the latest photos of Jupiter or colorful pictures of a coral reef — and exposing your child to different cultures and ideas from around the world.
Limit TV time.
When it comes to your child's TV viewing, balance is key. There are some excellent programs for teaching kids how a baby kangaroo behaves or how other kids their age live in
Movies and TV shows tend to limit a budding imagination since they do the visualizing for your child, says Michael Meyerhoff, executive director of Epicenter, a parenting information center in
Let him be bored.
We tend to think we need to provide our children with constant enrichment through school, after-school activities, and weekend sports or music classes. And it's painful to hear "I'm booooored!" on unscheduled Saturday afternoons. But don't feel compelled to whip up an activity every time he whines. Being forced to figure out how to amuse himself often leads to the most inventive and absorbing games your child will play. You never know what you might learn yourself when he decides to see if one roll of Scotch tape can run from the upstairs bathroom all the way to the backyard, or whether couch cushions balanced on blocks make as good a fort as a blanket slung over the kitchen chairs.
How to live with your kindergartner's imagination
Set limits. Creating and enforcing rules — no hitting with the "sword" — is crucial for everyone's sake. But if you can, let your child live for a bit with the reminders of his flights of fancy. The fact that the dining room table isn't available for dinner because it's currently serving as an igloo gives you the perfect excuse to have a "picnic" on the living room floor.
Accept his imaginary friend. Experts believe that having an imaginary friend is a sign of a creative, social child who's working out a way to manage his own fears or concerns. Some studies suggest as many as half of all kids have an imaginary pal at some point.
However, if your child starts blaming the buddy for something he did, it's time for a reality check. You don't need to accuse him of lying, but do address the behavior. Have your child, along with the imaginary sidekick, rectify the situation (clean up the mess, apologize, etc.) and make it clear the act was unacceptable.
Keep messes manageable. Yes, reenacting the story of Hansel and Gretel might lead to a trail of crumbs through the living room. If you have the space, it's a good idea to designate a room, or part of a room, as an arts and crafts corner, where your child is free to create without worrying about making a mess.
Some containment strategies can also help: Old button-down shirts make great smocks when worn backwards with the sleeves cut off, plastic sheeting under the Play-Doh construction site can protect the rug, and large sheets of butcher paper over the crafts table can prevent an encrusted layer of multicolored paints or glue.
Encourage wild ideas.
When an enthusiastic kindergartner says, "Let's build a roller-coaster in the backyard!" it's easy to be practical and point out the expense, building code violations, and safety hazards that would incur. But far-fetched whims can be the seeds of inventive thinking. It's better for his creativity if you answer, "Why don't you start by building a small-scale model for your toy soldiers?" and point out the long-unused toy train track that he can fashion into a mini amusement park outside. (Be prepared to help out!)
Enjoy the offbeat.
When your kindergartner decides his favorite clothing color is black and he wants to wear it (along with his lime green belt) head to toe every day, or that his bedroom looks best with the curtains rolled up onto the rod, cut him some slack. Adults are socialized to view only certain behavior and aesthetics as acceptable, but your child is still developing his sense of what's attractive or appealing. So let him experiment (within reason!).