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Melissa’s Playbook: How To Be an Imagination Coach

2017-04-26 by Melissa
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We recently partnered with Gallup for a study on parents’ perspectives on childhood play. You can see what we learned here. This blog is part of our “Time to Play” series, with advice and tips on how you can make time for play in your child’s life!

This blog is part of our “Time to Play” series, with advice and tips on how you can make time for play in your child’s life!

“Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.”

—Peter Gray, Research Professor, Department of Psychology, Boston College

Melissa's Playbook Series

Melissa’s Playbook: How To Be an Imagination Coach

Melissa’s Playbook: How To Be an Imagination Coach

Developing imagination, like developing that perfect swing, learning to speak a foreign language, or building any real skill, needs continual practice in order to become muscle memory. And putting the time in is totally worth it! Improve children’s imaginations and you’ll improve their aptitude for creative thinking and problem-solving, while also setting them on a path to self-discovery. Because our go-go-go culture doesn’t naturally lend itself to the kind of unstructured downtime that’s necessary for kids to imagine, create, explore, think, and connect, it’s up to us grown-ups to build it in. Below, you’ll find strategies for doing just that.

Melissa’s Playbook: How To Be an Imagination Coach

Here’s how we can Take Back Childhood to ignite our children’s imaginations:

1. Believe in Boredom
Many parents instinctively feel their kids are missing out on the freedom they experienced in their own childhoods, but still get caught up in the pressure to have their children engaged in endless adult-led, structured activities. Be confident that choosing downtime is the best gift you can give your child. Remind yourself that free play has been shown to boost confidence, problem-solving skills, resilience, social-emotional connections, and more. So ask yourself, what can give? Start by swapping out, say, one adult-led activity a week for more downtime and decompression, which may truly help kids realize their passions.

2. Schedule Screen-Free Time
Much of the precious downtime our children have today is spent on screens, which does little to develop imagination, communication skills, and a sense of wonder. Although it will be challenging initially, set aside small periods of time that are truly screen-free and hold to them. Start simply. Meals, for one, are an easy way to begin. Designate a container or basket at the corner of the table where everyone places their devices before the meal and witness how fun those meals become without screens getting in the way! Car rides are another time that can be tech-free. Set a rule that phones cannot be used in the car . . . and experience the wonderful connections you can make with your children!

3. Build in Play
It’s easy to incorporate pockets of playful time throughout the day — before bedtime, tell jokes and riddles; on the way to school, play spelling or math games; make one trip outside every day to visit the garden to check on vegetables or flowers or to go on a “spy” mission around the block. Start with one idea, and make it a routine. Even having a game every morning to try to guess the correct temperature can be a playful way to start the day and encourage kids’ involvement with their environment.

4. Provide a Spark
For many children, finding a screen-free way to entertain themselves can be a challenge. Starting from nothing is daunting, so give them a boost by creating “inspiration baskets.” These can include a craft basket brimming with paper and basic craft supplies; a dress-up basket with interesting clothing and accessories that can be used for pretend play; an outdoor play basket with different-sized balls, Frisbees, bubbles, chalk, and water balloons; and a game basket filled with classic favorites like playing cards, checkers, chess, Mancala, Hi-Q, Uno, and Yahtzee.

5. Challenge Them
It’s fun to find ways to inject challenges into everyday life. Just about any activity can be turned into a game: How quickly can we set the table (time kids to see if they improve over time), how quickly can we get ready for school or bedtime, how many times can we catch a ball, how many red cars will we see between here and there, how many different license plates between here and there, who can fly this paper airplane the farthest, etc.

6. Let Kids Lead
Although kids may occasionally need an adult to be their “spark,” the goal must be to let them build the fire as soon as it is kindled. As long as they are safe, follow the maxim, “Kids should be left to their own devices” (just not the ones with screens, of course!).

7. Nurture a Balanced Play Diet
It’s important to facilitate different kinds of play (pretend, dramatic, creative, experimental, physical, competitive) with different group configurations (solo, parent/child, peer-to-peer, small groups, mixed ages) and in varied settings (indoor, outdoor, parks, museums, in the car, at restaurants, at sibling’s events).

8. Equip Them for Success
Not only are you the imagination coach, you’re also the equipment manager. Although using the imagination in the truest sense involves nothing else at all, most children still collect many more toys than they will ever use. It is your job to continually enhance the toy box by removing toys that stifle imagination and keeping playthings that promote open-ended, imaginative play, and that can grow with children through multiple stages of development.

9. “Work” Can Be Play
Remember that the activities you view as chores are actually some of the most fun activities for children! Cleaning is always a family favorite, both inside (dusting, vacuuming, loading and unloading the dishwasher, and folding clothing) and outside (raking, sweeping, weeding, watering plants and vegetables, making flower arrangements, and washing cars). Cooking is a close second — kids enjoying nothing more than finding ingredients, measuring them out, and mixing them up!

10. Be Patient
With overscheduling and technology overuse rampant in today’s society, little time is spent on imagination-building. We need to fight for our kids’ freedom to unplug and spend time exploring and discovering who they are.

It may feel like a battle at times – instant entertainment at one’s fingertips is a powerful force. Be gentle and patient with your kids and with yourself. Take small steps forward each and every day. Once you and your children experience the magical moments they bring, you’ll feel inspired to continue the mission!

Melissa’s Playbook: How To Be an Imagination Coach

Imagination Challenge

This challenge works with using either the “craft inspiration basket,” or the “dress-up inspiration basket” mentioned above, or you can create a basket of miscellaneous items from around the house for kids to use in more general challenges. Have kids pull five (or more) items out of the basket and challenge them to:

  • Act out or tell a story using the items as props.
  • Make a craft using the art supply items.
  • Create a character using the role play items.
  • Invent a game using a combination of items from the boxes.

TIP: Add items to your inspiration baskets regularly to keep kids coming back again and again!

Melissa’s Playbook: How To Be an Imagination Coach

7 Imagination Drills
Every coach has some favorite drills. Encourage children to think more deeply and creatively by weaving these types of conversations throughout your day.

1. Ask Open-Ended Questions
Rather than asking solely factual questions (“How many legs does a spider have?”), get in the habit of asking broader questions that promote an understanding of oneself and more complex thinking:

• What would you do if you had eight legs and could spin webs?
• How did you make/draw/create that?
• If you could be any character in that movie, who would it be? Why?
• What is your favorite thing to do and why?

2. Compare and Contrast
Challenge children to notice similarities and differences.

• What objects are similar in color/shape/texture to this flower/rock/other item?
• What are differences between multiple songs/movies/sports teams/restaurants/stores?

3. Make a Case
Regularly pose “would you rather” questions and encourage kids to defend their choices.

• Would you rather play professional sports or be a rock star? Why?
• Would you rather visit the mountains or the beach? Why?
• Would you rather eat broccoli or French fries? Why?
• Would you rather travel to space or to the very bottom of the ocean? Why?
• Would you rather be a dolphin or a cheetah? Why?

4. Consider the Possibilities
Ask kids “What if…” questions that get them to imagine a world with different scenarios.

• What if kids ruled the world? What would happen or change?
• What if there was no running water? What would you do?
• What if there was no electricity? What would change?
• What if you were suddenly in a place where no one spoke your language? What would you do to get by?

5. Think Ahead
Extend kids’ critical thinking by asking them to think ahead as they play and create. Ask:

• What are all the possible outcomes?
• What do you predict will happen?
• Why were you correct or incorrect?

6. Stimulate Their Senses
As kids play, draw attention to their senses.

• What colors do you see? Where else do you see those colors?
• Have you ever heard a sound like that?
• What does that sight/smell/taste/experience remind you of?
• Which smells/tastes/looks better, this or that?
• Why does that taste or smell so good?
• Which senses are ignited when you see/hear/smell/touch/taste that?

7. Find Countless Ways to Play
Challenge kids to come up with new ways to play with their toys. And be sure to share any new twists on our toys at #CountlessWaysToPlay. Here are some scripts you can use to kick-start your kids’ thinking:

*What toys can you mix and match to make up all new play experiences?
*What’s a game you could make up to play with a particular toy? How do you win?
*Come up with a new “use” for the toy: “It’s not just a toy broom, it’s a rock star’s guitar!”
*Make up a story starring the toy: “What happened? Then what? What’s next?”

Good luck unplugging next week. We know it’s not always an easy thing to do, but it’s sure to lead to a magical time for all!


– Download our Imagination Coach Guide! –

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Take Back Childhood: Learn how to spark wonder in kids with these seven imagination activities *Love this post on how parents can be an "imagination coach" for kids. Great insights.



As a co-founder and chief creative officer of a toy company committed to championing open-ended, healthy play and as a mother of six who had two children in her 20s, two in her 30s, and two in her 40s, Melissa has had a front-row seat to the dramatic changes in the way kids play and experience childhood. She is dedicated to speaking out about the crisis our children face due to the rise of technology and other societal factors and providing solutions to help families find time for child-led play and exploration.

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