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Movies in our Minds - How to Boost Mental Imagery Skills

Some of my favorite memories from childhood involve a pen, paper and a grown up. A teacher I adored also happened to be what I considered "an artist" back then. In hindsight, his drawings were just sketches, nothing my hand isn't capable of.

He would take us on adventures, parading down a path paved in black ink. We would shout out characters, objects and places. "Put the princess in the tower!", "Give her a hot dog! She's hungry!" "Oh no! There's a UFO in the sky!" I was all of 6 years old, but these drawings are clear as day in my mind.


Did you know, not all children can easily create an image in their mind? Mental imagery often is a weakness for our children with reading and learning disabilities. It requires the ability to analyze the details, retain these details as a larger concept, recall them when needed and manipulate them if necessary. As you're reading this, I want you to picture ice cream in your mind.

What flavor is it?

Is it in a cone or a cup?

How many scoops?

Are there jimmies on top?

Maybe a cherry?

Is it melting?

Or did you picture a box of ice cream?

In order to complete that task, your brain needed to bring up the concept of ice cream and piece together an image based on what you've previously experienced with ice cream. What if you're lactose intolerant, or just don't like ice cream? How could that change your mental picture?

Now try to picture your hippocampus and limbic system. That's a part of your brain that handles memory, learning and the very task we're doing now- mental imagery. Unless you're very familiar with neuroanatomy, this picture is going to be a lot harder for you to form.

For our children with difficulties in mental imagery, tasks involving recall, comprehension and prediction, will often feel as unfamiliar as picturing your hippocampus. This can affect not only their reading skills but their math skills as well. You may see some challenges in using their imagination to create vivid stories or lots of prompting and probing in order to remember that trip to Disney World last month.

So how do we teach mental imagery?

Draw it out! You don't have to be an artist by any means, the pen you're using is merely a tool to get that mental paintbrush going. If you're struggling with a place to start, find inspiration in your child's favorite story or characters. Draw three little piggies, "What house does this one live in?" Get into each detail of that house. What color is the straw? What can you see through the window, is there a vase in the window? Does he have a mailbox too?

By getting into these details, you are encouraging your child to find and create the details in their mental pictures. We learn concepts by understanding the details and how they fit together into a whole idea. Rote memorization is not learning and lacks details. It may be essential for certain factual information, however true learning occurs in the details.

Also, do forget to share the pen! Let your child scribble and draw. Maybe you can add eyes to their circle or legs to the scribble. Or maybe they do not want to share! That's great too. Draw alongside your child and share in the experience. Again, we want this to be a fun journey not a forced trip.

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