Mind Expanders

by Olivia Fox


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You don't need to spend gobs of money on art or music lessons, or even computers and batteries, to encourage a young child's imagination. Use easily gotten stuff and mix in a little whimsy.

Hats, sashes and capes make wonderful props. If you don't have any of your own, make turbans from scrap fabric, use scarves, or pick up crazy hats for a song at thrift stores. Capes are made by simply gathering rectangular material and attaching ties. They are easy to sew from a decent sized piece of fabric or an old bath towel. When your child dresses up, pretend you're a reporter. "Who are you?" "Do you have any special powers?" "What's your favorite food?" "Where have you traveled?" "Describe you most exciting adventure."

Your child chooses three characters or objects for their story. One recurring combination at our house was a little boy, a mad scientist mouse, and a caterpillar. The first person starts with the first sentence, the next person invents the second and so on, until the story finishes or becomes too silly to continue. "The caterpillar ate everyone up, gave a big burp, and exploded. The end."

Ask your child about their drawing. What happened before? What happened after? Transcribe the story in his/her own words. (We printed ours out on the computer in large type, a sentence on each page, leaving space for illustrations at the top. Writing it out by hand works too.) Read what they wrote aloud as the child draws corresponding pictures. Staple the pages together with the title and by line on the cover. Our eldest son's "Soup with Broken Wheels In It" became his bedtime favorite for weeks.

I love kid-sized spaces, particularly tree forts. When there's no tree, rig up a space on ground level from a big box. We got several from a dollar store and stuck them together. A pillow and bedding transforms it into a comfy retreat for reading or dreaming.

Listen to music together. Check if a nearby library has loaners. Go for pieces that evoke pictures in your mind, like the 1812 Overture, Pictures at an Exhibition, Grand Canyon Suite, or Carnival of the Animals. As it's playing, the child describes or draws what they "see." Encourage them to add to the music. Give them spoons, a spoon and pot, dried beans in a jar, or use more conventional music makers like kazoos or voice.

My youngest went through gobs of poster board and masking tape. He constructed Rube Goldberg inventions and all kinds of wild sculptural objects. Any cardboard thin enough to cut with safety scissors works, like shirt cardboard. If he's stumped for ideas, suggest a monster, mask, building, or vehicle.

Insects are intricately designed. They have three parts, which are the head, thorax and abdomen, as well as compound eyes and six legs. Bird's beaks and claws are specially suited for their particular food and how they live. Mammal's fur and coloring camouflages and warms them. Take your child for a nature walk or give them a picture book to study, then suggest they invent their own creature. What's its name? What does it eat? Does it play games? How does it build a house?

As you see, there's plenty of ways to go. Add your own. Enjoy the new worlds you and your children discover along the way.


Olivia Fox is a stay-at-home mom with two boys. According to them, she's known for her bad jokes and crazy birthday parties.

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