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PARENTING Fostering children’s imagination

Going Out

The (almost) lost world

Father-of-two Fin Keegan on how to unfetter a child’s imagination and let it grow

Not far from where I sit in Westport, writing this article, work is continuing on a sprawling complex of buildings whose very existence remains unknown to most inhabitants of the town. The multi-coloured installation is heavily fortified and (my sources can reveal) contains a missile launcher, a mission control room, an armory, a walk-in safe, surveillance quarters, and several dormitories. Showing a somewhat softer side than this catalogue might suggest, the architects have also included an animal sanctuary.
Originally slated for completion in the summer, a series of violent episodes involving militia and security forces have pushed the target date to Halloween.
One very good reason why you had no idea of this secret base’s existence? It’s made of Lego, sits on a table in our attic, and this time next week might well be rebuilt as a football stadium. Or a skyscraper. Or a volcano.
Like every child, my two young sons, aged seven and nine, spend most of their free time (and, I dare say, a lot of their school time) in a dream-world of adventure and thrills, fighting dragons and warlords, scoring the finest goals ever seen, and flying to undiscovered planets in faraway galaxies.

Imagination trapped
The great thing about children, as the wise grown-up knows, is that their imagination is so powerful, so ready to get to work, that their toys do not have to be in any way fashionable or sophisticated, or even be toys at all: two spoons and a dish will do.
Imagination, in short, is the healthy child’s most precious possession, the bedrock of their ultimate identity as autonomous and well-adjusted adults.
Why then, one might ask, does society lay siege on imagination? For that is how things stand today.
To begin with, falsely believing abductions and child murders to be everyday dangers, we have put in a host of needless restrictions on children’s lives, preventing them as a result from experiencing much nature (or life indeed) beyond the bite-sized chunks dolloped out to them on screen or in museums.
We allow advertisers (even on RTÉ, to our shame) to exploit children by making them feel self-conscious for not having Object X or looking like Celebrity Y.
And pity the child interested in reading: With televisions, computers and game consoles dominating bedrooms, there’s hardly a quiet place to go and pore over a book or comic.

Fostering fantasy
So what can you do to fortify your kids against the commercialised garbage that they are exposed to?
For a start, take their questions seriously. Often the only reason we laugh at children’s queries (“Did Jesus know football would be invented?” is a typical example) is that their train of thought does not follow the clichéd route we are used to.
Limit extra-curricular activities of primary-school children to one commitment a week. Above all, avoid filling up their time with pursuits such as organised sport, music and language lessons. Though worthy in themselves, these sessions cut into the unstructured time that children need and naturally fill with their own activities (which might well include sport and music – but chosen off their own bat).
Bring them to the library. Outside of cities and online sites, it is difficult to find a good selection of books: local booksellers rarely extend their stock far beyond fads and gift titles. Thankfully Mayo County Library steps in with a magnificent (and free) service. Once they are in the door, preferably on a weekly visit, give them free rein … don’t influence their choices unless they specifically request it.
Limit total weekly screen time to a set amount and don’t let your children use any electronics in the bedroom – all that has to happen in the living-room. If they are online, be in the same room and exercise commonsense.
From the moment we lumber them with names which say more about us than them, parents are prone to living vicariously through their offspring, showering them with Chinese-made junk because we ‘had so few toys when we were young’, or signing them up for auditions with an eye to stardom. If this is you: leave them alone and get a life.
And finally, starting in infancy, read to your child. Beyond the clear demonstration of your love and the great stories to share, you will be filling your heart with memories for the time when, inevitably, they leave home for the real world – hopefully with enough imagination to build a happy and fulfilled life.