“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
We may not subscribe to the White Queen’s idea of a daily half-hour of imagination practice or set our children homework to believe six impossible things before breakfast. However, if we ignore the importance of developing children’s imagination – and the other side of the coin, which is teaching imaginatively ourselves – we are likely to be far less effective with our classes, whatever their age.
Imagination is to do with conceptualising and visualising with our ‘mind’s eye’. It is to do with thinking ‘outside the box’ and believing that things apparently not real or possible could be or are. Through using our imaginations we generate fresh thinking and new ideas. Through teaching imaginatively in a way that integrates, builds on and develops the imagination, children become better at such things as:
- asking ‘good’ questions
- thinking creatively
- solving problems
- understanding concepts from other areas of the curriculum
- seeing different points of view
- empathising with others
- evaluating their own and others’ ideas
- thinking in images
- remembering and memorizing
- relating what they learn to other things they know
- expressing and communicating their ideas (whether verbally, or visually through drawing, or kinesthetically through mime or drama).
When we look for opportunities in our teaching to build on children’s natural capacity to imagine in order to help them learn language, there are a number of other significant benefits too:
- Children become more engaged in their learning.
- They feel greater “ownership” of what they learn.
- There is a higher level of involvement and participation.
- Children feel their ideas are valued.
- They develop greater self-confidence and self-esteem.
- They become more respectful of, and willing to listen to, others.
- There is increased humour and enjoyment in lessons.
- Children’s concentration spans increase.
- Their behaviour improves.
There are many different language-related activities that we can use to develop children’s imaginations. A few typical examples range from e.g. a simple mime activity with very young children Imagine you are a fierce and hungry lion, to inventing, designing, drawing and presenting a new electronic ‘gizmo’ or gadget for a class competition, to creative parallel story writing based on a previously read picture book, to collaborating in a group to create a dance to do as you sing along to a karaoke version of a favourite song, to acting out an imaginative role play e.g. between Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf next time she meets him in the forest. Imaginative activities can also be based around questions, for example, What would you rather be: the moon or the sun? or images, for example, interpreting what’s happened before or after a photo, or giving a title to a picture, or imagining what you just can’t see out of the frame.
Three things to keep in mind when doing activities to develop children’s imagination:
1 It’s very hard for children (or indeed anyone) to be imaginative to order, or ‘cold’ as it were, and so we always need to provide some kind of stimulus, trigger or springboard which prepares children emotionally and cognitively for the imaginative activity we want them to do.
2 It can also be extremely frustrating for children if their imaginations far outstrip their language competence, so we need to have thought about how we will provide the basic language input necessary to do an activity, and be sensitive in responding to individual divergent language needs thereafter.
3 Teaching imaginatively doesn’t necessarily need to involve a radical overhaul in what we do. By keeping in mind all those little ‘Wh’ questions and using them in a way to open up rather than close down thinking, there is much we can do in an ongoing, every day way to encourage children’s imaginations to blossom and to take their learning further. For example, in the context of telling a story, simple questions such as What happened next? How do you think the story ended? Which character would you most like to be? Why? encourage children to think and engage imaginatively with the text.
It would be great to hear about ways you develop children’s imagination in your teaching. Please do share!
Illustration of the White Queen and Alice by John Tenniel.
Photo credit: tahini