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How to Teach Kids to Dream in 3 Steps

A new research-supported approach teaches kids to use their strengths to dream.

Scott Stoll/Sara Williams. Used with permission
Source: Scott Stoll/Sara Williams. Used with permission

Special guest bloggers: Scott Stoll and Dr. Sara Williams

Have you seen these memes?

  • Dream big!
  • If you can dream it, you can do it!
  • It’s never too late to live the life of your dreams!

Of course! There are thousands and thousands of these memes out there. But they do go beyond just fad and fashion.

Advice about the importance of having dreams and setting goals goes back thousands of years. One of our favorite philosophers, Lao Tzu, said: “Be careful what you water your dreams with. Water them with worry and fear, and you will produce weeds that choke the life from your dream. Water them with optimism and solutions, and you will cultivate success.” Indeed, we’d argue that dreaming is an inherent character trait of being human.

But what is a dream? How do you teach a child to dream? And how do you measure whether a dream is effective? After all, aren’t dreams ethereal, will-o-wisps of our imagination? These are the questions we investigated for our research and writing. Let's examine these questions.

What is a Dream?

The best definition we have found comes from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” when the magician Prospero says, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.” This is a powerhouse statement near the end of the Shakespeare's career and is considered a commentary on both the theater and life. So, a dream, according to Shakespeare, is made of, or built on the dreamer. And what is the dreamer but a conglomeration of their character traits!?

How Do You Teach a Child to Dream?

Our research found there is a lot of advice telling people that having a dream is essential to living a good life, but there were no books teaching kids how to dream in a systematic way. We decided to take action! After years of education involving Sara earning a PhD in child psychology, Scott riding a bicycle around the world seeking the meaning of life, and years of writing, testing and modifying, we developed a formula for teaching kids how to create a dream. We put that formula to test with a study by the University of Cincinnati, guided by Professor Farrah Jacquez, PhD, and a YMCA after-school program. What we discovered is that we weren’t teaching kids how to dream as much as we were teaching them how to develop their character strengths.

To define our dream process using VIA’s Classification of Character Strengths, we taught the kids to use their zest (enthusiasm) and curiosity to power their creativity, which combined to inspire spirituality, or more specifically a purpose and meaning. We paraphrased this as the kid-friendly, 3-step process below.

Step 1: Fill Your Bucket

We used a bucket as a metaphor for the mind and all the emotions, knowledge, memories, thoughts, ideas, and dreams it holds — in other words, character strengths. The students used their creativity to fill their bucket with a hodgepodge of ideas — the parts and pieces which would be used to build new dreams. To do this, we created a lot of fun games and activities to spark their emotions and imagination and inspire them with light-bulb moments. It was designed to be anything but boring!

Step 2: Sort Your Treasures

Next, we taught the students to empty their bucket of dreams and sort them into different piles like: yes, no, and maybe. This is easier said than done because we needed to teach them how to place a value on their dreams. In other words, we were asking them to ask themselves: “Is this the life I want to live? Is this who I want to be?” Tools we used to do this were the foundation of great character strengths like: love, critical thinking, self-regulation, and not least of all, bravery.

Closing some doors can be hard. And, of course, we’re going to do it while playing fun games. Playfulness — what a great character strength for this!

Step 3: Build a Dream

By the time students reach Step 3, they have discovered a lot of dreams and learned how to sort them into useful groups using tools we developed such as Gut Check, Weighing the Pros and Cons, and the Skills Checklist. We then taught the kids how to use their creativity to put all the parts and pieces together to build a new, never-before-seen, inspirational dream! How awesome is that!? Awe, that’s a significant character trait right in the title of our book.

How Do You Measure if a Dream is Effective?

This was the figurative and literal litmus test! Was our formula actually working? To determine that, we needed actual evidence. (For the record, most books on this subject are mostly opinions and content scraped off the Internet.) Ultimately, we were trying to measure the ineffable and elusive transcendent qualities of a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and the hope and faith that would fuel the kids to succeed. In other words, we were trying to measure the kids' social and emotional intelligence. After some debate, we chose an increase in optimism (or optimistic thinking) as our measure of success. We felt that this would directly reflect an increase in our key goals. We could have chosen: curiosity, hope or enthusiasm; however, optimistic thinking, as measured by the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA), seemed to be the easiest and most accurate.

Conclusion: Dreaming (Optimistic Thinking) Can be Measured.

At the end of our year-long study, we were proud to announce a 22% increase in optimistic thinking in the first semester alone, plus an astonishing 100% of kids reported thinking about their goals more often. One improvement that we learned to add was a step to teach them how to use their judgment to filter which dreams might be most feasible.

This coming year, we will refine our research in the Cincinnati Public Schools. We hope to improve our method and measures, and, most importantly, per the suggestion of Superintendent Laura Mitchell and Principal Whitney Simmons, we plan to include the teachers in our research study to measure the overall effectiveness and ease of implementation.

For us, as authors, it has been a dream come true to conduct this valuable research and spread dreams far and wide. We believe that if we can teach kids how to live their dreams, and encourage others to live their dreams, that the world will be an amazing place.

We'll conclude with another Shakespeare quote related to the first, “All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” or as we would say, the dreamers.

About the Authors

Scott Stoll/Sara Williams. Used with permission.
Source: Scott Stoll/Sara Williams. Used with permission.

Sara E. Williams, PhD, is a licensed clinical child psychologist who specializes in assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with chronic health conditions. Dr. Williams has co-authored multiple research studies, chapters, and a book on cognitive-behavioral treatment of chronic pain syndromes. She is inspired every day by the hope and optimism displayed by the children she works with and sees the power of dreaming in providing children with the motivation to overcome the biggest obstacles. Her childhood dream to become a children’s author was realized with the publication of this book!

Scott Stoll asked himself a question: “If I could do anything, what would I do?” His answer resulted in a quest for happiness around the world on a bicycle (32,344 miles, 4 years, 59 countries, 6 continents). Since coming home, Scott has continued living his dream by spreading his message of finding happiness through writing books and working with kids of all ages, including being an artist-in-residence and inspirational speaker. He has also been honored to be named the Cultural Ambassador to Argentina by the U.S. Department of State and has received the Hosteling International’s “Spirit of Adventure Award,” among other distinctions including a best-selling and award-winning book about his journey. Read more about Scott and his bicycle ride around the world on his website.

Their book, Dream it! A Playbook to Spark Your Awesomeness, was published by Magination Press, an imprint of the American Psychological Association.