kids summer activities

How to encourage kids to use their imaginations: The magic of ‘What if?’

Photo above by Chris Burgett via Unsplash.

School’s out for summer. Some kids will go on vacation to coastal destinations or to a place where princesses live. Others will play outside until the fireflies tell them it’s time to go inside.

But there will be a time when children sit around with tablets in their hands, locked into their games, social media or YouTube. These things are fine, of course, if the kiddos are supervised and their time is limited. As a father of three I understand, completely.

As an author, I try to get my kids to play by way of their imagination whenever possible.

Imagine, if you will… 

We all have imagination. Everything around us, everything we read, watch and listen to was created by imagination — especially technology. And yet to some degree, technology has weakened our imagination muscle.

So how do we encourage children to get off the screens and into the imaginative worlds that await? To play with toys that sit ignored — action figures, toy trucks, dolls and other items that need the child’s imagination to come to life.

By playing the What If? game.

And now a brief time out for the obligatory back story…

As mentioned above, I’m a father and an author, but I was once a kid. More precisely, a latchkey kid and an only child. So you can see why, to me, imagination is important.

Imagination expands the mind. It forces you to think and thinking forces you to imagine. It’s a symbiotic relationship, if you will. It can reveal the possible. Even create the possible.

As a lonely kid, it gave birth to a family I wished I had. Brothers and sisters. A father. I imagined places that were beyond the stars or fathoms below the ocean’s surface, and I did it all with my toys. And by asking ‘What If?’

Back then, I didn’t dream. I imagined.

Introducing the What If? Game

A few years ago, I spent a couple of days teaching a class at a local school about writing fiction. I taught more than 600 kids and we played the ‘What If?’ game. At the start of each class, the kids were sitting and listening. But by the end, they were animated and yelling and having fun. Because they were using their imaginations.

Let’s Play: The next time you’re on a road trip with your kids, play the ‘What If?’ game. Have one of them point out a car that passes by. Maybe they see that a couple and their teen daughter are in it. Its license plate reads Ohio.

Then ask, what if the three people in that car are trying to outrun a zombie outbreak that started in Columbus? What if they’re stuck in Pennsylvania and every time they cross the border back to Ohio they restart their trip all over again? What if…?

Once you decide on one particular ‘What If?’  then continue by asking more ‘What Ifs.’

What if that car that’s stuck in a time loop is occupied by three Martians whose ship is in Ohio? What if they need to get to it within 12 human hours or it will self-destruct, leaving them on Earth forever? What if one of the passengers is a traitor and doesn’t want to leave?

Questions upon questions will expand the imagination, and the story. A simple question is all it takes to get the imaginative juices flowing.

Children can do this game with nearly any toy they have lying around — including those trucks, or dolls, or action figures. What if the toy truck has no brakes and is heading straight toward Han Solo, who is frozen in carbonite and what if…? Or with LEGO bricks and drawings. What if the LEGO castle housed a rare piece of ancient artwork and what if…?

I’ll let you fill in the rest.

Try this around the dinner table. In the doctor’s waiting room. At bedtime. Play it anywhere and everywhere. Just like a tablet or a smartphone, imagination is portable. And unlike a tablet or a smartphone, imagination doesn’t require a battery or Wi-Fi.

Its only requirement is an inquisitive mind.

Want more ideas for kids’ summer activities? Check out our guides to free outdoor movie screenings, great local swimming pools and local farms where kids can pick berries.