Do our kids have enough down time to develop a healthy imagination?

My brilliant friend Annie Murphy Paul, who writes The Brilliant Blog, recently began a story by saying that it was more important than anything she’d written in a while, and she hoped readers could spare a little extra attention (btw, you should read it). I feel that way about my piece from this weekend, describing research where neuroscientists have found a connection between having a healthy imagination and the ability to make good financial decisions. Those who can imagine walking into a new home or sitting in a new car in the future do a better job of saving money today. The implications of this research are very exciting, particularly the idea that we can teach people to do a better job of imagining future rewards. In fact, a having a good imagination can also be linked to other good future outcomes: healthier living, lower debt, even stabler marriages. The story has a part two, however, and I’m hoping you might be able to help with that. Are we nurturing imagination in our kids?

We hear parents lament often that their kids’ schedule is too packed with activities, and that they spend weekends shuttling from soccer to ballet to piano lessons that never end. Back to neuroscience. Joe Kable of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the imagination/savings issue for a living, is very concerned that many parents don’t give their kids enough down time nowadays so they can develop a healthy imagination. I will let Prof. Kable speak for himself in a moment, but first: Are you a parent with a kid who’s often overbooked? Are you worried about it? Do you know an overbooked kid (who of course has an overbooked parent), and do you have strong feelings about it? Tell me in comments below, or e-mail me at Bob.Sullivan at

Here’s what Prof Kable told me about kids and imagination:

“There are a lot of things that I think we sometimes think of as silly that kids do that turn out on second inspection to be quite profound. I think the imagination you see when they are on their own dreaming up scenarios …I think that ability has a purpose, and psychologists are just starting to appreciate that purpose.

“We are starting to key in on (humans’) propensity to build futures in our heads, and it might seem like silly kid stuff, but it’s actually really important psychologically.

“I’m stepping outside of my realm of expertise here, but the things I’m learning suggest time on your own where you have to construct or imagine other worlds and construct things in your head rather than have them immediately presented to you is important to future decision making, and I suspect for a lot of other things beyond that. ..this fits with what other people who are talking about the importance of boredom, which we’ve lost in the modern world. One thing you are doing when bored is trying to think of things, sparking your mind to go off on flights of fancy. We haven’t really recognized the importance of this, and haven’t thought about how to develop it in kids. There are some hints suggested, such as reading lots of books, learning songs and being crafty. But kids, being smartly designed creatures, they are developing it anyway, even when we ignore it in them. It would be a shame if we take away with modern tinkering.”

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About Bob Sullivan 1605 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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