Photo: Melissa & Doug

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.

May 1-7 is national Screen-Free Week. As we get ready to turn off those screens and turn on those imaginations, I wanted to share some strategies for how we can begin to think of imagination as a coachable, learnable skill.

Here are a few ways 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!

So 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!