A child psychologist’s tips for encouraging kids to be practical dreamers

We recently learned of a Canadian holiday called Family Day, celebrated in many provinces on the third Monday in February. We second the notion that recognizing the importance of family is, well, important, and are pleased to pay homage this week to clans large and small, given and chosen, with Family Week on Idealists in Action.

You’d be hard pressed to find the parent who says, “I want to squash my kids’ dreams every way I can!”

Every dad and mom worth his or her salt wants their children to grow up creative, stimulated, and dreaming big, and they make every effort to encourage these traits. But at Idealist, we’re all about good things getting even better, so we asked child and family psychologist Aparna Sampat for her tips on encouraging kids to imagine without borders.

Here are three zingers we pulled from our interview, straight from the doc herself:

1) Ask, don’t tell.

When young kids are drawing or coloring, they usually start out with everyday sights: say a tree or a house. But if the tree is round or the house doesn’t have windows or doors, a common reaction from parents is, ‘Oh honey, that’s not how you draw a house/tree. Let me show you,’ and they proceed to draw it the ‘correct’ way. This can really stifle creativity; it makes kids think things have to look a certain way to be ‘right.’

So instead of correcting them, try asking questions. ‘Oh, you drew a tree? Tell me about it. Does it have leaves? No? Okay, cool, a tree without leaves. Would a bird like this tree?’

Provocation will make them imagine more, and having to explain their design will get them to think more about its form and function.


If you can’t quite tell what’s going on in Junior’s picture, try asking him to explain it.
(image courtesy Shutterstock)

2) Couches are for sitting?

I was in a family’s living room once and their two young boys were wreaking havoc on the couch—pretending it was a pirate ship and jumping on and off. The mom became irritated and concerned that they’d damage the furniture or the floor, so she admonished them: ‘Couches are not for jumping; couches are for sitting.’

While I sympathized with the mother’s concerns, I had to think: are these kid ever going to be able to see things outside the box? Where will they be able to exercise their imaginations? They’re at the age when we develop a sense that multiple perspectives exist and not everyone is thinking what we’re thinking—when a banana can become a phone, etc.

The problem for the mom in this case was not that her boys were being imaginative, but that they might be destructive—yet that wasn’t the problem she addressed when she disciplined them. She could have explained the actual issue and given them a choice between playing more gently on the couch or picking another place to play—without so narrowly defining what household objects are ‘for.’


There are lots of “right” ways to sit on couches.
(image courtesy Shutterstock)

3) Use your words.

On the street once, I saw a boy who clearly wanted to get a hold of his dad’s cell phone. The dad took a moment to retrieve it from his pocket, and the boy swatted his hand with impatience. In response, the dad swatted the kid’s hand back! The message he sent there was: when you’re frustrated, it’s okay to lash out instead of crafting a productive reply.

To encourage his son to build his powers of creative communication, the dad could have said, ‘Whoa! Are you frustrated? Did you want this phone sooner than I could give it to you? Tell me how you’re feeling.’ Even if the child just nods in reply, that exchange is a good way to demonstrate how clear, calm communication can help solve problems, but that it does take practice.

When we act out physically instead of taking the time to think about and articulate our problems, we blunt our creativity and put up a wall between ourselves and others. The self-expression that kids—and all of us—can cultivate through our words is usually a more useful tool than an open palm.


Sampat sums it all up by saying, “Kids’ minds start out boundless. They don’t impose limits, even unintentionally. So all we have to do is not shut them down.”

“Just think: what would my kids be creating right now if they didn’t think they could do wrong?”

How do you encourage the kids in your life to be practical dreamers? Tell us in the comments.

Dr. Aparna Sampat is a licensed psychologist who works with children, adolescents, young adults, and families in New York City. She can be reached at asampatphd@gmail.com.


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Indian Designer Sees The Dreamer In Everyone

Sonia Manchanda and the DREAM:IN project started with a simple idea: instead of asking people about their needs, find out their dreams.

As a co-founder of Idiom Design and Consulting in Bangalore, Sonia thought the design thinking approach, where solutions arise from human needs, was too simplistic and too top-down to create new value and meaning, especially in emerging nations.

People are more complicated than a list of needs, after all. And for the complex nation that is India, with its great divides between rich and poor, marginalized voices often go unheard. Empowering people to dream reveals what is truly meaningful in their lives.

“If you can hold a mirror up to people and ask them about their tomorrow and understand the future they’re imagining, then you’re actually doing a good job already,” Sonia says.

In 2011, in collaboration with Carlos Teixeira of Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, the team trained 101 youth from all over India to go to its smallest towns and ask people what they want for themselves, for their communities, for the world.

They traveled 15,000 miles by road and rail and filmed thousands of conversations with people from all walks of life. The DREAM:IN “imagination network” was thus born.


Sonia holding “dreamcatching” conversation cards
(photo via yourstory.com)

The “dreamcatching” methodology seamlessly combines ethnography, design research, and filmmaking. It goes like this: a facilitator holds up a series of conversation cards that feature images from advertisements: a date with a Bollywood starlet, driving a fancy car, etc.

Once people can laugh about the things society wants them to dream about, they’re encouraged to let their imaginations loose and get to the heart of what they really want. The ultimate goal is to move past the fears that so often freeze us.

“A lot of people may think, ‘I may hate this job that I am doing, but if I don’t go outside and carry bricks on my head and help build this house and get my daily amount, then I’m not going to survive. I don’t have the time or the right to dream. I shouldn’t be dreaming,’ ” Sonia says. “So there are all these fears and anxieties, and there’s nothing worse than the death of dreams.”

DREAM:IN shows that dreams are alive and already inside of people—you just have to want to discover them. What the group has found is a beautiful array of humanity at its most hopeful, with dreams ranging from opening a museum to creating a newspaper for rural communities to seeing a tobacco-free India—and much more.

And the team doesn’t hit the snooze button there. Once dreams are collected, they share the data with design scholars, business leaders, change agents, thought leaders, bureaucrats, venture capitalists, and others to inform future development in the country.


Dreamcatching boards. To date, 1901 dreams have been captured.
(photo via DREAM:IN on Flickr)

Since its founding, DREAM:IN has morphed from a project on the fringes of Idiom into an independent venture centered around open innovation. The ultimate goal? A dynamic database of dreams and a global network to help bring those dreams to life.

One of the ways DREAM:IN is getting there is by putting select dreamers and seasoned entrepreneurs in the same room for a series of Dream Camps—where things like start-up advice, ideas for funding, encouragement, and connections are shared—to help transform dreams into reality.

“Start early, prototype fast” is the guiding principle. Young entrepreneurs are trained in Dreamscaping, a scenario methodology, and the Dreamplan, a business plan tool.

“It’s good to have your head in the clouds and be imaginative, but also have your feet planted firmly and moving steadily on the ground,” Sonia says.


Dream Camp 3 held last April to help people “dream, believe, and realise.”
(photo via DREAM:IN Facebook page)

Despite societal challenges—older generations conditioned to rigid ideas regarding jobs and social mobility, for example—many dreams have already taken flight thanks to DREAM:IN. Youth, especially, are inspired to see local problems as opportunities.

One young boy invented a machine to incinerate sanitary napkins that often get clogged in toilets, which is starting to be installed in colleges. A law student who had long dreamed of becoming a small business owner changed his professional course and opened a canteen. Another duo created a reusable water bottle for attendees of rock shows.

DREAM:IN has already been replicated in six universities in Brazil and three in China. And this year, they’re launching a product brand with farmers in Tumkur and creating a groundswell of entrepreneurship across South India with over 100 academic institutions. They also plan to create tools and educational materials based on their methodology for people to copy and encourage more dreamers in communities around the world.

This openness, Sonia believes, is ultimately at the heart of good, lasting, and scalable innovation.

“At the same time you have a dream, it’s already somewhere out there in the universe,” says Sonia. “It’s a shared thought. So it’s better you go do it, do it openly, and include all the others who may think similarly to what you’re thinking and make it a big shared dream.”

Share your own dream and help others by joining DREAM:IN. What are you waiting for?

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