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How to Spark Kids' Imaginations

An interview with Mindy Thomas and Guy Raz, the creators and co-hosts of the #1 podcast for kids and their grown-ups, “Wow in the World.”

By Joanne Ruelos Diaz, writer, editor, and children's book author.

The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition related activity.

At CLIF Kid, we live to inspire kids to get outside, explore, create, and use their imaginations. We’re always eager to learn more, so we decided to ask the pros. If anyone knows how to supercharge kids’ imaginations, it’s Mindy Thomas and Guy Raz, the creators and co-hosts of the #1 podcast for kids and their grown-ups, “Wow in the World.”

Curious Kids + Science = Wow!

On their podcast, Mindy and Guy talk about the latest news in science, technology, and innovation. How did their audio experiment get started?

Guy Raz: One day, Mindy and I were on a hike together and I thought, we should really start our own kids’ media company based around podcasts that would get kids away from screens. We know from decades of research that listening to something stimulates your brain the same way that reading a book does. The idea was, let’s start with a podcast and see where it goes.

Mindy Thomas: We realized that the most interesting, uplifting, and hopeful news stories were coming from the world of science. We realized kids and scientists think alike! They’re both endlessly curious.

Guy Raz and Mindy Thomas on a hike

Mindy Thomas and Guy Raz came up with the idea for a podcast while hiking together

It turns out that their experimentation yielded extraordinary results. Since 2017, the podcast has been downloaded more than 160 million times. Its success spawned more podcasts including “Two Whats?! and a Wow!” and “Who? When? Wow!”; two best-selling books; the “Wow in the World Pop Up Party” live events; and the interactive traveling experience “Wow on Wheels” that hit the road this summer in a renovated ice-cream truck turned mini-museum of science and wonder.

“It’s how we learn to problem-solve. It’s how we practice being human. Imagination is how we make sense of the world.”

Igniting Imaginations

What’s their secret to engaging millions of kids and their families? Have kids do the work — with their imaginations.

Guy: From the very beginning, we wanted to create a cartoon for the ear. We integrate all kinds of sounds, and they trigger your brain to imagine something. We’re able to build this world, which is infinite and can grow in any direction because it’s all in your mind. We’re just giving kids the tools to paint this world for themselves.

Mindy: We’ve had contests where kids send in pictures of how they imagine characters on the podcast. I love seeing how kids imagine the world of the show and its characters. That’s one of the beauties of audio and igniting their imaginations. Imagination is so important. It’s how we learn to problem-solve. It’s how we practice being human. Imagination is how we make sense of the world. There are so many different ways of being imaginative. To be an engineer or a doctor, you have to be imaginative. That’s what gives us hope in the world. I think imagination is the most important thing that you can have. For all ages. All people. All professions.

Fueling up before participating in WOW in the World on Wheels activities.

How to Encourage Kids to Find the “Wow” in the Outside World

Clearly, Guy and Mindy know how to entertain and educate kids and their families. With their own families, they love to spend time outdoors.

We asked for ideas on how to inspire kids to get outside and get curious. Here’s what they had to share.

1. Getting Outside Is Hard; Staying Outside Is Easy

    The toughest part of any adventure with kids is often just getting out the door. Whether it’s going out to play in the yard, walk around the neighborhood, or hike in the woods, once they’re out and exploring, children’s curiosity takes over.

    Mindy: Both Guy’s and my families are big hiking families. I remember when my kids were little, and I told them we were going on a hike. They would say “Oh, we don’t want to go on a hike! It’s too much walking!” I started off giving them all invisible horses to ride on, and then that turned into invisible creatures. This is the best thing ever! You can get them to go for miles if they’re walking or riding an invisible creature. This is for younger kids and works miracles.

    2. Think Small: Even 15 Minutes Outside Is Worth It

    You don’t need structured activities or extravagant adventures. Any experience outside is meaningful to kids and ultimately to the planet.

    Guy: We’re lucky to have a dog, so we’re forced to go outside every day to walk it. You don’t have to go to the Grand Canyon or go on a 10-mile hike for outside time to be valuable. To me, it’s a simple matter of just getting outside everyday even for just 15 minutes.

    Mindy: Being outside is such a great metaphor for so many things in life. It’s imperfect; it’s messy; it ignites all your senses. Your awareness when you’re outside is so different from when you’re sitting in front of a screen. Just that natural connection to nature helps kids understand that this is a place worth exploring and protecting as they grow up. I think for kids to be stewards of the planet, to understand their place in it, and for them to want to take care of it, they first have to experience it. I love it when kids call the show and talk about something they found. Like when they find a bird’s nest in a tree or see a snake eat a frog. They are so excited to share with us and the listeners what they discovered.

    3. Squat Down, Look Up, and Model Your Own Awe and Curiosity

      Let kids lead. When they pause to examine something, take the time to explore with them. When kids ask questions, instead of ending the conversation with “I don’t know,” use the opportunity to wonder aloud. Model your own curiosity by asking questions. What do you think happened? How do you think that happened? What do you think would happen if…? Asking your children questions — including silly ones — is a great way to stimulate their curiosity, imagination, and creative problem-solving.

      Guy: I think ultimately one of the amazing things about children is that they are naturally curious. When you walk down the street with a 2- or 3-year-old, they’re saying, “Look at that squirrel! Look at that bug!” They’ll squat down to watch a bug crossing the crevices of the sidewalk.

      I remember my kid looking up at the night sky and asking if we could travel to the stars. I said, “I don’t know!” and we began looking into it. We learned it would take thousands of years! Modeling curiosity is a practice and it’s something you can be disciplined about. When you are, you can actually stimulate curiosity and creativity in your kids.

      4. Use (or Don’t Use) Screens Intentionally

        Do screens limit our children’s imaginations or do they enhance them? Like all of us, Guy and Mindy think about screens and how to best use them — or not — with their own families. Experiment with your family to find an approach that works for you.

        Guy: One of the things that we do is lock up our devices on Saturdays and go on a hike. It’s hard because you can’t do simple things like use GPS or check whether a restaurant is open. But it’s pretty great because it forces us to go out and do other things and spend time as a family.

        Mindy: I have a slightly different approach to screens. Instead of fighting them, I try to help my kids to see screens as tools. For example, my son has gotten into photography. I introduced him to photo editing apps. Both my son and daughter are into making movies. I introduced them to Canva to make logos for their “production companies.” I want them to use their phones as tools to make things or to engage in the world in way that helps them make things.

        Speaking of making things. We had one last question…

        If you could bring anything camping, what would you bring?

        Mindy: I think duct tape is pretty useful. I would use one stick to whittle another stick and make a knife. Then I could cut down things, build a shelter, and tie it together with duct tape.

        Guy: I would bring a giant dome to place over an entire nature reserve. It would have the same technology as noise-canceling earbuds. If there were loud campers or people playing loud music, this dome would just suck away the sounds and you would only hear the bubbling brooks, the chirping birds, and the wind through the leaves.

        Imagination and creative problem-solving at work!

        When kids get curious, they start exploring, asking questions, and imagining possibilities. They observe, marvel, and appreciate the tiniest ant on the ground and the brightest stars in the sky. Then who knows? They might be the ones to figure out how to travel through space to see those stars up close.

        Thanks for getting curious with us, Mindy and Guy! Love your show!

        Light Up Those Imaginations

        Looking for more? Check out these episodes to get curious kids outdoors:

        CLIF Kid is a sponsor of WOW in the World on Wheels, an experiential mobile tour by Tinkercast, makers of the Wow in the World podcast, that invites kids, families, and communities to experience The Wow through location-based audio activities and a traveling collection of community-created WOWs in each location.