Watching a young child at play, we can see how naturally children engage their imaginations. Stuffed animals listen and talk as they are given various roles. Plastic bowls and spoons easily become drums for bands and parades. Empty plates overflow with favorite foods as children play in toy kitchens. Imagination is a key part of how children learn about the world around them and discover their place in that world.
Sometimes we equate the use of imagination with pretending, but imagination offers us much more than fantasy. Imaginative play helps children interpret the world around them as they recreate a variety of roles and situations. Imagination also helps them see things differently and envision new possibilities. In this way, imagination is not just a child’s activity; imagination is what inspires all people to use their creative gifts to surround themselves with beauty, design new technologies that make life easier, and visualize ways to live peacefully with one another. This gift of imagination has been given to us by God, and it can draw us closer to him.
There are many means by which we can engage the imagination to encounter God and respond in prayer. Saint Ignatius of Loyola taught a method of prayer that invites the use of the imagination to make present the events described in Scripture. Using a similar method, storybooks can be used to lead us to pray. Through a variety of art forms, the imagination can become a resource for prayer. Icons, stained-glass windows, and statues are expressions of prayer. As we gaze upon them, they lift our hearts and minds to pray. Similarly, music, movement, and dance engage our imaginations and lead us to express ourselves in prayer.
Young children are naturally filled with wonder about the world and are open to discovering the mystery of God, who gave us our very being and all that we have. Drawing upon the gift of imagination, parents and catechists can nurture this openness to God, guiding children to see the depth-dimensions of our human experience, find God’s hand in the beauty of creation, and experience God’s love reaching out to them through their parents, families, and friends. The desire to be in relationship with our loving God has already been given to them. As parents and catechists, we hope to guide children to learn to respond to this desire through prayer.