Imagine Childhood: Interview with Sarah Olmsted

Imagine yourself as a child, running through a wide open meadow, making your own magic wand from a found twig, and building forts in thick woods, and you’ve caght the spirit of Sarah Olmsted’s book, Imagine Childhood: Exploring the World through Nature, Imagination, and Play.

Imagine Childhood book

I recently got my hands on Sarah’s hot-off-the-press book, which is packed with 25 magical projects that are as much inspired by the author’s own rich childhood as they are by her experience as an exhibit designer at the Field Museum of Natural History, and I have to tell you…it’s beautiful.

But beyond aesthetics, Sarah says, “these projects are not about what is produced in the end (although that part is fun too); they are about the process of getting there.” Ahhh, this makes me happy.

Guess what? Today is the Tinkerlab stop on the IMAGINE CHILDHOOD: Exploring the World Through Nature, Imagination, and Play book-blog tour, and I’m thrilled to welcome Sarah into our little corner of the web for a cozy little interview.

Here are the other stops if you’d like to soak up more Imagine Childhood inspiration while tapping into some other great blogs:

Readers will have the opportunity to win one a copy of Sarah’s book at the end of this interview.

Rachelle: Welcome, Sarah! I’m so glad that you’re here. You describe the journey your book takes as “chasing the magic of childhood.” Can you tell us about your childhood, and a little bit about the magic you remember from it?

Imagine childhood book

Sarah: That’s a hard question to answer succinctly because so many of those magical moments existed outside of the world of words.  They were feelings and experiences, milliseconds of expansion in the midst of the beauty and chaos of everyday family life.  My childhood was a typical one.  I come from a big family, so we were wild, rambunctious, loud, and loving like any house full of people, dogs, cats, birds and rabbits would be.  There was always something going on at any given moment, and while we didn’t have many “big” adventures, at the end of every day there was definitely a story to tell.

I don’t think I “remember” the magic of my childhood as much as I feel it.  I feel it when I’m wandering in the woods by myself and I can hear the sound of leaves shifting over my head.  I feel it when I learn something new that completely changes the way I understand the world.  I feel it when I let go and drift totally and completely into the moment.  I feel it when I allow myself to play.

Rachelle: You write in your book about the close relationship you have with your family. I’m always interested in hearing how parents can help shape their child’s experiences. Will you share a story about how your mom encouraged your creativity to flourish?

Imagine childhood book

Sarah: Growing up, my mother trusted me to figure things out in my own time.  She had a way of always being there without having to be right there.  I can’t imagine how many hours she spent watching all of us kids from a distance, close enough to comfort or help if that was what the situation required, but far enough away so that we felt empowered by the freedom of exploration.  Whether I was running around in the woods making forts, digging up the backyard to make a giant mud pit with my brother, or just reading stories in my room, I felt like an adventurer.

Even though she was always there the moment I needed her, my mom stood back just enough to let me feel like no one was watching.  In that bubble of my own little world, I could test things out, I could make mistakes, and I could make discoveries.  Those are the experiences that cultivated my creative spirit.  They taught me to trust in my intuition and to never fear failure, because that’s where you learn all of the really good stuff.

Rachelle: Ah, that makes me feel like I’m on the right track! Fostering independence and seeing failure as an opportunity for growth frame my own parenting philosophy. Can you tell us about a favorite project from your book and how it exemplifies your point of view?

Imagine childhood book

Sarah: It’s difficult to choose a favorite because each project comes from a different place and sparks a different emotion in me. But I guess if I had to pick one for today I would choose the Rube Goldberg activity.  I’m a school nerd at heart so the physics component of putting one of these chain reactions together appeals to that side of me, but I also love how they put emphasis on the process rather than the result.  Since the “success” of one of these types of activities requires a lot of trial and error, the fun often comes from figuring things out and laughing (a lot) when they don’t work as planned.  I think this activity lends particularly well to the spirit of IMAGINE CHILDHOOD for that exact reason.

While there are many projects and tutorials throughout its pages, this book is more about experience than outcome.  It’s about the conversations that happen while making things together. It’s about getting to know the world inch by inch. It’s about exploring imaginary universes and running through real forests. It’s about living in childhood . . . regardless of your actual age. This book is about being a kid.

Rachelle: What’s your next big project?

Sarah: Right now, apart from sharing the IMAGINE CHILDHDOOD book, I’m also working hard in the Imagine Childhood shop.  As we move into our 5th holiday season, we’re putting the final touches on our new gift guide (packed with our favorite children’s goods as well as lots of free seasonal recipes and crafts)  and preparing everything for the busy days ahead.  We have some great new things this year that I can’t wait to share 🙂

Rachelle: I’m so glad that you mentioned your shop! I got absolutely lost poking around over there and would highly recommend it to all of my readers. I would feel lucky to call any of the materials and kits on your site mine — they are just beautifully curated. Thanks for talking with me today, Sarah!

Sarah: Thanks so much for having me over to your beautiful space!

imagine childhood: interview with sarah olmstedSarah Olmsted grew up in Colorado and spent much of her time exploring art, science, and the nearby foothills and mountains. After receiving a bachelor of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, she spent some time as a freelance children’s furniture designer/fabricator, which eventually led her to the Field Museum of Natural History. There she worked in exhibit design, developing interactive educational activities for permanent and traveling exhibitions before moving on to cofound imaginechildhood.com in 2008.


One copy of Sarah’s book, Imagine Childhood, will be given away to a lucky reader. To enter for your chance to win, click on the Rafflecopter giveaway. This is open to U.S. addresses only.

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  1. What a wonderful book! Looks like a great supplement to the un(pre)schooling I’m doing for my daughter.

    I was an only child for a big chunk of my childhood, so I had a lot of independent explore time (inner space and out). We moved around a lot, but I always had just enough nature to investigate many of the things I’d read about in my parents’ library.

  2. Sounds like a terrific book! Lately my son’s been on an island-building spree using his ever-growing collection of rocks, shells, sticks and bark. Just like Kelley in the comment above, I had a lot of independent time growing up. One of the things I loved doing was making stuffed toys out of fabric scraps, yarn and old socks. It was so much fun, even my younger brother liked it. And then we’d set up a puppet theater with the toys.

  3. This book sounds like one I not only would like to get, but to write too! I have two wonderful little boys that are at home with me full time and I am considering home/unschooling.
    I find it difficult to go against the hyperparenting/schooling that is in my area, but truly believe that encouraging creative play and exploration will serve them better than any preschool, even one that is “play based”.
    Thank you for your wonderful blog!

  4. So happy I stumbled across tinkerlab.com today! And I would LOVE to win a copy of Imagine Childhood. Feeling very inspired today!

  5. I remember having lots of fun cooking with grass, weeds, stones etc. The only part that really disturbed my mom was when I decided to pretend cut up my teddy bear to be part of the meal. It still makes me laugh now when I think about it now.

  6. This book sounds wonderful! I love letting my kids explore and learn! A favorite memory I have as a kid is playing outside in my back yard. My sisters and I would play all kinds of make believe games and set up camps around our trees (we each had our own!). Thanks for all the great ideas you share!

  7. this books looks really great! I can’t wait to find out more about it 🙂 I’m currently getting my degree in Early Childhood Education & I have a toddler so, love this information!

  8. Great post. One of my favorite childhood memories is being OBSESSED with The Secret Garden and pretending that my backyard was the garden.

  9. My favorite childhood memory is having spaghetti dinners at my grandparents’ house every Sunday afternoon.

  10. Ahh, I have so many great memories of growing up. I remember many days spent playing with my cousins on our grandparents’ farm. We were given free range of the farm and had all sorts of adventures.

  11. My cousins and I would use an old pile of wood at my grandparent’s house as a time machine. We would travel all over… to the time of dinosaurs, the wild west, and even the future. We would spend hours and hours playing together outside.

  12. My dad used to take us to fish in small river in cacao estate…my brother and I would swim down stream and up stream with my parents while they fished. I remember tasting the cacao fruits and observing the brown seed.

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