When he was young, Walt Disney was obsessed with cartoons.

He was the cartoonist for his school newspaper. He drew cartoons on the side of his ambulance when he was a driver in WWI. After the war, he looked for any job that would pay him to draw.

As a child, he had always been imaginative. He anthropomorphized his family’s farm animals into his personal friends – especially the pigs, his favorite of which he named Porker.

Those anthropomorphized animals eventually made their way into his cartoons – first as Mickey Mouse, then later as Bambi, the Lady and the Tramp, then as his Hundred and One Dalmatians, to name just a few.

Over the course of his long career, Disney built one of the greatest entertainment empires in the world. He was involved in the production of 81 films in his lifetime – which is only a fraction of the films his empire has put out since. His amusement parks see over 20 million people every year.

But it all started in his imagination.

Imagination is the key to a good life

Everything created by humans – from the humble chair to the Falcon 1 – began in someone’s imagination.

Someone had to imagine a thing that wasn’t there for that thing to come into being.

Sometimes those imaginings are big and dramatic. In the early 1900s, the Wright brothers imagined that people could fly. They imagined wooden contraptions with canvas wings that could defy the known laws of gravity. They spent long hours imagining every detail of how those wings would work – how they’d be held together, how they’d be made aerodynamic, how they’d operate mechanically to lift the contraption off the ground.

Human flight didn’t exist yet – it was just a dream. The New York Times said airplanes were possible, but development would take “from one to ten million years” – two months and eight days before the Wright brothers’ first flight.

This product of their imaginations is now a reality. It’s part of the lives of millions of people on a daily basis – including the thousands upon thousands of souls who are up in the sky, right now, as you’re reading.

If we didn’t have imagination, airplanes wouldn’t exist.

But imagination isn’t just for big dreams like flying. It’s easy to write off imagination, in the same way people write off dropping out of college (“sure, Steve Jobs did it, but your kid isn’t going to grow up to be Steve Jobs, are they?” – usually paired with a ‘gotcha’ smirk).

“Your kid isn’t going to be the next Walt Disney, so why does any of this matter?”

First of all, your kid isn’t going to grow up to be the next Walt Disney with that attitude. If they’re going to be the next Walt Disney, or Orville Wright, or Elon Musk – or something else entirely new and all of their own – they’ll first need to imagine themselves as that person. Imagination is a necessary prerequisite.

But imagination is important for any life, not just the ones we read about in history books.

Solving problems at work requires imagination – our ads are no longer converting. How can we revamp our marketing strategy and try something new to increase our sales?

Managing relationships requires imagination – you want to live in Madrid and I want to live in Miami. How can we imagine a solution to this problem that will keep both of us happy?

Designing a career requires imagination – I want to make a living as a podcaster, talking about natural health for mothers of young children.

The coffee shop where you got your coffee this morning was once the proprietor’s daydream. The apple you had for breakfast? The product of imagination. Apples were once small and bitter – like a crab apple. They had to be bred to become the sweet, succulent fruit we buy at the grocery store. Someone looked at a small bitter crab apple and imagined it could be better.

If we never learn how to use our imaginations, we will only have run-of-the-mill thoughts and live run-of-the-mill lives.

Imagination is innate in all of us. Every human is born with it. But in order for it to become a useful tool, it needs room to develop.

That’s why imaginative play is such a critical part of a child’s development. It’s why kids are hardwired to play – and why creative play is one of the most important parts of a kids’ education to nurture.

School is killing your kid’s imagination

School is filled with rote memorization, boring requirements, and tests. Kids spend their days learning uniform facts from a textbook, in an order that has been pre-defined, in search of answers that have been pre-determined.

There is very little room in the classroom for a child’s imagination.

In fact, kids’ imaginations are methodically crushed. Kids who doodle on the sides of their math papers are not praised for their art, but told to pay more attention. Kids who write creative responses on a test are not celebrated for their wit, but are told to stop “clowning around.” Kids who can’t sit still in class are relegated to vo-tech as if it’s something lesser.

Imagine spending twelve years trying to grow flowers in uniformly-placed, too-small pots, pruning them to a standardized size regardless of where their most promising buds were growing – only to be confused when most of them turned out listless or wilted.

That’s what we’re doing to our kids.

The world will push every kid to grow up eventually. The question isn’t “will they reach adulthood soon enough?” but rather “will they get enough childhood before it’s gone?”

Kids don’t need us to make them boring. They need us to give them as much room as possible to be imaginative. They need to lean into imaginative play with everything they have. They need to build Amazon box castles and dress up like warrior queens and lie out on the patio and make silhouettes when it rains.

They need to imagine what it might be like to learn to fly, or what they might find at the bottom of the ocean, or how they might construct a floating city where they can invent a country all of their own.

They need to construct complex fantasy worlds in their minds, for hours and hours. They aren’t wasting time on novelties and “being childish.” They’re building a muscle – and one of the most crucial skills they’ll ever develop. Imagination is a tool that will help your kids solve problems and come up with new ideas and build something great and powerful with their lives.

It is perhaps one of the most foundational skills you can teach them – and really, they don’t require much “teaching.” All they need is for you to give them space to explore.

How to raise kids with vivid imaginations

Kids are naturally imaginative. The part of Walt Disney that gave all his farm animals personalities and names is alive and well in your kid, too. And it’s critical for your child’s development.

Really, your most essential task is to stay out of the way and give your kid space.

Instead of drowning them in have-to-dos, let them chase their fantasies. If your kid loves drawing flowers, let them spend their day outside with a sketchbook (like Audobon did). If your kid loves playing the piano, let them spend all day doing that (like Mozart did).

Don’t fall into the trap of needing the end result of those fantasies to be clear. Just because they look unrelated on the outside doesn’t mean they don’t make perfect sense to your child – nor that the path won’t make perfect sense once your child’s “one day” arrives.

Imagination is precious. It is one of humanity’s most valuable resources – and it is too often squandered, to the detriment of all who might have flown on planes or fallen in love with Disney movies or lived in the Mars colony otherwise.

If your kid wants to spend all day building models of a space colony, let them.

Who knows. It may be the first step in helping to colonize Mars – or the precursor to some other imagining that hasn’t occurred to them, or any other human being, just yet.

Hannah Frankman

Hannah Frankman

Hannah is a homeschool graduate, college opt-out, and the founder of rebelEducator. She writes extensively about education for publications like FEE and The Objective Standard, and is the host of the rebelEducator podcast. You can find her work at hannahfrankman.com.

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