Creating Successful Adults: Nurturing Imagination with Nature

by Melissa Harding

Summer Reruns: Just like your favorite television shows go on hiatus for the summer, so does the blog. We will be running eighteen summer camps in eight weeks, so we will be a little busy! In place of original posts, Tuesdays will now feature some of the blog’s most popular posts from the last year. Fridays will feature that week’s camps, with pictures, crafts and lesson ideas for parents and educators.


There is a certain way that young children think, in which they use logic to create conclusions without fully understanding all the evidence before them. Recently This American Life, the WBZZ Chicago weekly radio program, investigated this phenomenon in a program called “Kid LogicDr. Paul Harris, professor of Human Development and Psychology at Harvard, has been researching child logic for years. One such experiment involves wishing; up to about age 6 or 7, many young children believe that they can wish something into being. In this study, a researcher showed children an empty box and asked them to imagine either a puppy or a monster in the box. After which, the researcher asked the children if they really believed that there was a puppy or a monster in the box; the children, of course, said no. Soon after, the researcher left the room and watched the children from outside. Those children who were told to imagine a puppy went over to the box and peeked inside; those asked to imagine a monster edged away from the box. A child’s imagination is a powerful thing.

Harris has also found that children not only imagine and act out fanciful possibilities they have never experienced, like being a knight in battle, but they also utilize their imaginations to think about real events and things they’ve never seen, like death or germs. This is necessary for children to learn about people and events they don’t directly experience, such as history or events on the other side of the world; it also allows young children to ponder the future, such as what they want to do when they grow up. Children use imagination to figure out confusing and fearful situations, making sense of a complex world.


According to Harris, human beings have a “gift for fantasy, which shows itself at a very early age and then continues to make substantial contributions to our intellectual and emotional development throughout our lives”. In other words, having a good imagination is an important quality in successful adults. Imagination allow us to think about alternative scenarios and avoid making the same mistake twice. It also helps in making moral judgements and in language comprehension. When adults listen to a narrative, they create a mental image of the situation being described; brains often retains this mental image rather than specific words. These adult abilities are learned in childhood during imaginative play.

One way to engage children in imaginative development is through nature play. In 2006 a Danish study found that outdoor kindergartens were better at stimulating creativity and imagination in children than indoor schools. In this study, 58 percent of children who were in nature invented new games; just 16 percent of the indoor children did so. One theory for this is “loose parts”, the idea that if there are more loose parts present, play is more creative. Loose parts are easily manipulated items, such as sticks, rocks, flowers, and leaves; in nature, these parts are unlimited in number. Children naturally know what to do with these items; making swords, having tea parties, building fairy houses, and constructing forts are intuitive activities. Simply put, the natural world is the ideal place for children to hone their imaginations and creative abilities.


Nature play can happen anywhere outside – in a backyard or in a forest, alone or with others. While it is important for children to spend time outdoors with trusted adults, it also important for them to be unsupervised (or at least feel like they are).  Letting children guide themselves and play alone without the presence of adults is often called “free play”. Free play is rich in competency-building experiences and opportunities for discovery. It also stimulates imagination and creative social play. As Thoreau once wrote, “We need a tonic of wildness”; let your child be free outdoors and you may be surprised at how his creativity flourishes.

Need more? Here are some other ways that parents can encourage imaginative development:
1. Model imagination for your children: Play pretend, build forts and be silly! Your kids will love it.
2. Encourage fantasy characters: Santa, the Easter Bunny and imaginary friends are all figures that nurture the imagination.
3. Read works of fiction and fantasy: This exposes children to new worlds, characters, places, time periods and situations to which they might not otherwise be exposed.
4. Play dress-up and pretend:
Encourage your child to act out situations that they have not experienced through play.
5. Provide open-ended toys: Much like loose parts, toys like dolls, buckets and balls allow room for creative play.
6. Get messy: Cede a little chaos for the greater good!

To learn more about Dr. Paul Harris’s research, check out this article on children and imagination or this one about autism and imagination in the Harvard School of Education magazine. Also this piece from the Wall Street Journal.

To listen to the full episode of Kid Logic, check out the This American Life’s archives.

The above photos were taken by and copyrighted to Molly Steinwald.

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