“Fireman Fred, Fireman Frank, lift the ladder, squirt the hose!” Several times a day I would hear phrases like this coming from my young son’s bedroom as he played with his fire truck toy and one leg of a pair of red pants stuffed with batting as a fire extinguisher. Then dinosaurs would join the force (or be the things on fire) and even more squirting and sloshing noises would come from the bedroom. Finally I would hear the clacking and banging as the final line of defense— screwdrivers, hammers, and pliers—moved in to save the day! Yes, Ben had a brilliant imagination. (He still does, but it’s directed in different areas now.) All day long he fought the forces of evil, or fire, or rogue dinosaurs in adventurous escapades, always as the hero of his stories. When it came time for stories and reading, there were a few favorites we read night after night: a couple of books about firefighters, some about dinosaurs, and a book filled with pictures of hand tools. Ben liked fact books best, even more than Dr. Seuss or Beatrix Potter. We read some of those stories so many times that we can probably both still recite them by heart.
Now Ben is living across the ocean as an exchange student in Poland, so I can’t really hear him in his room narrating his new adventures. But I know he is still reading and exploring and learning facts about the world around him. He reads fiction, but he loves and lives nonfiction. Many children are like that. I know quite a few children, boys especially, who want to read fact books almost exclusively. It’s not that they don’t have an imagination, or that fiction is bad, it’s just that they want to read about something they can see or think about, or dream about that is real. Maybe there are as many reasons for reading particular books of nonfiction as there are children to read them. I know Ben would picture himself on the seat of a tractor, or driving a road paver or a crane. Tom liked books about ducks and other animals, but real animals, not pretend ones.
I learned early on that imagination is more than just dragons and magic. Children will create imaginary worlds, starring themselves, from all sorts of jumping-off points: fire engines, the lives of princesses, costumes of knights, piles of rocks. All these can be rich material for imaginative play. I was thinking of making a list of some of our family’s favorites, but then I realized there are so many subjects it would be futile to list just a few and neglect others. So I’ll stick to subjects. We have enjoyed exploring animals, balls, cats, dogs, ears, fire engines, garbage trucks, hammers, ice cream, jackrabbits, kites, lemonade, musical instruments, noodles, opera music (okay, that’s a stretch for most kids), popsicles, quilts, rabbits, screwdrivers, tongs, umbrellas, valves, walking stick insects, xylophones, yarn, and zippers. What are some of the subjects your children have loved learning about?