imagination – where is it? (adoption/foster)

“Use your imagination.” How do those words work with your kids?

Our daughter, Payton, lacked imaginative skills for years. Her imagination was so invisible that we wondered if she would ever develop in that area. I wished for her to be able to play like most other children, but it seemed it would be an unrealized dream.

From the time Payton came to us I tried to integrate imagination into her play, but most of the time it failed. I would tell her she could set up a tent in the living room, she would reply that she didn’t know how, so I  showed her. Months later, after she figured out how to construct a pretend house with blankets, she would load her animals in, and it quickly came to a halt, and an, “I’m done.”

It had turned into a task for her,

and that’s how she went about everything in her life. Sometimes I would play with her, other times I encouraged her (with much prodding) to do it on her own, using the undetectable imagination. We, or she, would get it all ready, and it abruptly came to an end.

I remember reading a Highlights High Five magazine with her, in it a boy was building a zoo out of blocks. Promptly after finishing the story, Payton lugged her blocks to the living room, and didn’t know what to do. With my assistance, she has built towns with blocks, but this seemed beyond a simple city.

I suggested she get the small animals from her brother’s room, and I proceeded to help her build stalls for the zoo creatures. When we were done putting it together, she said, “Now what?” I used one of the people figures and fed and watered the lions, tigers, and bears, and she did the same. I used other figures to pet the animals. Then I stood to finish something I’d left undone and she began to pick up.

She had completed the task.

This story, and ones where I didn’t intervene happened so many times, I don’t want to bore you with more. I will acknowledge that, yes, there are task oriented personalities, but for her lack of being immersed in video games and movies, and my consistent help, I was quite taken aback at her inability to use her imagination.

So what’s going on? Why can’t many of our children who’ve been neglected, abused, and traumatized be creative and use their imagination? I think I’ve found the answer.

In Bruce Perry’s book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, he says, “In contrast to other specialized organs in the human body, such as the heart, lungs, and pancreas, the brain is responsible for thousands of complex functions. When you have a good idea, fall in love, fall down the stairs, gasp when walking up stairs, melt at the smile of your child, laugh at a joke, get hungry and feel full – all of those experiences and all your responses to these experiences are mediated by your brain.”

So what happens when our child’s brain isn’t fully functioning because their trauma (even the loss of a parent at birth) has stopped their brain from connecting as it should? (You can read more about the brain connections here). This does not mean that our children aren’t intelligent, as many are, even though their developmental age may be way behind. (Our daughter was reading books at age four, and is very bright, but that didn’t mean her whole brain was functioning where it should be.)

Now, also consider what happens when a child is needing to use their imagination, and that creativity depends on multiple sections of their brain to work properly.

As I was trying to figure out this lack of imagination as it pertains to children who’ve been neglected, abused, and traumatized, I found an article on WebMD that explains, “For creativity/[imagination] to have a chance, the brain needs to get out of it’s own way and go with the flow…During the study on creativity it showed…the brain regions that were quiet during improvisation are involved in monitoring, evaluating, and correcting behaviors…‘One important thing we can conclude from this study is that there is no single creative area of the brain – no focal activation of a single area,’ says Allen Braun, MD. ‘You see a strong and consistent pattern of activity throughout the brain that enables creativity.’”

Don’t get discouraged, because there is hope! Throughout the past few months we have seen glimpses of Payton’s emerging imagination. This spring she piled dirt in buckets (something she has always loved to do, but it always stopped with a bucket full of mud), placed them in her wagon, and pretended it was her ice cream truck. It was so cute, and we were delighted!

This past week, she took leaps forward and had a day filled with imaginative play. The ice cream truck took some turns around the yard, she PLAYED with her barbies, instead of only getting them dressed, and she built a zoo on her own and went beyond the set up. She had a busy day! I believe her ability to play and imagine is linked to her growing attachment and all her other subconscious fears being put aside.

The night before I read the quote from WebMD, my husband said, “How can she use her imagination, she’s always thinking. Her brain never stops.” Remember the WebMD article said, “For creativity to have a chance, the brain needs to get out of it’s own way and go with the flow…The brain regions that were quiet during improvisation are involved in monitoring [and] evaluating.”

Because of our children’s past traumatic experiences, their monitoring and evaluating areas of the brain are on overdrive, and are ALWAYS on alert.

Our children’s first experiences taught them to watch their environment closely and protect themselves. These built-in life preservers won’t shut down, or close their doors for any amount of time until our children have made significant bonds.

Because those monitoring and evaluating areas of the brain are constantly in motion, it makes sense that their brain cannot enact creativity and imagination.

So, how do you foster creativity? By first keeping bonding at the forefront of your mind. Second, find opportunities to work with your child on developing in that area. Make it fun, because it’s not something your child has to expand.

  • Make up short stories at bedtime, or anytime, and tell them to your child.
  • Ask your child if they want to tell you a story. If they don’t want to, start small, and ask what animal or person they want in your story. Next ask what should happen in the adventure.
  • Choose books that implore imagination.
  • If you haven’t done it before, make a tent out of blankets inside or outside.
  • Ask questions: If you could go anywhere, where would you go? If you could be anything what would you be? Don’t get upset with their answer, this is for fun. Also, at first you will probably get, “I don’t know,” or an “I don’t care.” If they don’t know, give them some ideas. If they don’t care, tell them what you want to be, where you would want to go.
  • Pretend play with dolls and animals.
  • When you’re driving around, ask what buildings, structures, etc. remind them of.
  • Look at clouds and tell each other what you think they look like.

Did you help your child develop their imagination? How did you do it?

Here are some posts on bonding:
let’s bond already – creating attachment with the adopted child
rocking: a simple first step to bonding (and it doesn’t just apply to infants)