The other day I spread out a play mat for a friend’s four-year-old son and gave him a few hot wheels. He started the cars at home, then went to his preschool, then to my house, and then to another school to pick up his older sister. I asked him if he was going to head next to the unicorn’s house in the sky. He gave me that annoyed look that little kids sometimes give adults and continued imagining his road trip.
We often think of children’s imaginations being filled with fantastic images, but researchers say that’s only a small part of imaginative thinking. Harvard psychologist Paul Harris has found that children actually rely heavily on previous experience when they imagine what they will do in the future or decide what is possible or impossible in pretend play. This means they need to have experience with spiritual thinking and practices if we want spirituality to influence their imagination.
For example, researchers asked children to imagine how a farmer could have produced a better harvest. Most children replied with nature or science-based solutions. However, children exposed to religious education endorsed non-nature-based solutions like praying as well. So introducing children to spiritual practices such as meditation, ethical reflection, self-examination, or thinking positive thoughts helps children incorporate these aspects into imaginative engagements with problems.
There is also some evidence that children incorporate things they have learned through books or trusted adults into their imaginative thinking. When we read books or tell stories about beings like angels, ancestors, spirits, gods, or Jesus, these figures become available for imaginative exploration. We can also share ideas like ‘the great beyond’, social justice for all, and embracing diversity, aspects of spirituality that are more difficult to experience but important to imagining life after death or a more just society in the future.
Harris also discovered that children’s pretend play includes learned responses to regular events. For example, when researchers pretend to spill something, children imagine cleaning it up. This suggests that building spiritual practices into your family’s daily routine will provide a template for spiritual responses in imaginary situations. If you welcome the day with thanks after eating breakfast, your child may do the same when playing house. Putting used boxes and cans in the recycling bin after emptying them may elicit imaginary games of recycling. Asking permission before hugging a crying friend might prompt children to pantomime a similar action when their stuffed animals interact.
My friend’s family is Christian and regularly attends church. As her son drove his play car to all the places they usually go, he included a stop at a church. His imaginative journey drew on all his experiences, including the spiritual act of participating in a religious community.