Encouraging imagination and creativity in older children
I remember reading research about how dramatically we lose our creativity as we get older: If you give a four-year-old a kitchen roll tube and ask what it can be then they come up with literally hundreds of ideas (a unicorn's horn to a bit of debris that has fallen off a spaceship) whereas the average adult struggles to think of more than about 20 - with telescope being the main one that we can think of!
SO, what can we do to maintain this high-level imagination that pre-school children have - certainly for our older children? It is often said that the main thing we can do is give children time to be bored so they use their own mental and physical resources to come up with ideas for games and how to entertain themselves. From my experience, older children happily default to screen if that is an option. So make sure there are good stretches when no form of screen is an option! I find my children are amazingly good at coming up with an interesting game if I give them the choice of playing/ doing anything at all they want that isn't screen, or helping me with a pretty dull job - something like hoovering the entire house. "If I hear any squabbling or fussing then I'll know that's you volunteering to help!" has brought on many an hour of happy playing. Often these are wonderfully creative games where they transport themselves to parallel universes and solve all sorts of crises.
Imaginative play helps us process things - we see that in young children, when something interesting or unusual that children have experienced quickly emerges in their games as they explore the idea further. Well, certainly with my children it did. We'd pass someone with a guidedog on the street, discuss later how wonderfully trained the dogs are and how much they can change someone's life and that evening there would suddenly be an urgent need for a piece of string to go round a cuddly toy dog's neck... This imaginative play is great for developing empathy and understanding too. As the child plays 'all the roles' in the roleplay they turn from one character to another and immediately put themselves into that character's shoes.
LEGO is a brilliant way for older children to keep exploring different scenarios and experiences. I don't think there is such a correlation now for my children between personal experiences and what comes out in games (well, I hope not because there seem to be rather a lot of disaster scenarios!) but I am certain that books and films are influencing the incredible storylines that I hear emerging from the playroom. And the same point about empathy is still true: how the characters cope when faced with tsunamis, spies following them and all the other adventures they create is contributing to my sons' understanding of the world and people's emotions.
Another great technique that we can use to encourage our children's imagination is setting out an 'Invitation to create'. This can be something as casual as "I've left the big cardboard boxes by the backdoor in case you want to do anything with them...." Or we can set out a selection of interesting random items on the kitchen table that might prompt ideas e.g. bubble wrap, scraps of nice material and sewing stuff and pieces of string. Invite them through for a drink and a snack whilst sitting at the table and just see what happens...
Likewise in the bath we can stick a few unusual things by the side and just see whether our older children feel like doing anything with them. We don't even need to say anything, but a whisk, set of measuring cups and a toy truck lying unexpectedly within easy reach of the bath might unleash all sorts of fun and creativity for our youngsters. Alternatively a nice open ended toy such as Explorers Bath Set can just get older children fiddling around and creating or thinking about things that might not otherwise have popped into their heads. Who knows - it might even tempt the adults.