Imagination in Childhood Play

A vivid imagination is one of the hallmarks of creative thinking. Imaginative behavior is “what if” behavior. With imagination, we can conceive of possibilities not yet realized and manipulate them internally. This is an outstanding human capacity and one that is evident in even very young children. Children with vivid imaginations disregard the limitations of what is and instead think of what might be. Very young children often imagine and create worlds of possibilities in their everyday musings and daydreaming. Toddlers play with pots, pans, bowls, and dishes as drums, hats, and building supplies. Socks become puppets with their own possibilities, and if you observe play in early childhood, you will often hear the phrase “Let’s pretend…” followed by something like “OK, I’m the mommy, and you’re the baby, and this stuffed bunny is really our pet dog.” Imagination continues to contribute to creativity in school as students write original short stories, design projects in social studies, and devise problems to solve in environmental science. The ability to imagine, and interpret, thoughts, ideas, concepts, scenes, stories and more both supports learning and undergirds all forms of creativity.

Imagination, Learning, and Cognitive Development

Imagination is thought by some to be mostly fanciful. But, Lev Vygotsky – an early and eminent developmental psychologist – considered it essential for all learning and development. He described two kinds of cognitive behaviors: those that are reproductive of our past experiences, which lack a creative quality, and those that he called imaginative. Imagination is based on our brain’s ability to draw from, combine, and recombine elements from our previous experiences. Some contemporary developmental psychologists consider imagination to be central to all thought and learning. How might we think about anything, really, without imagining a mental image or representation of the thing we wish to contemplate?

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Albert Einstein

Imagination is:

  1. the act, process, or power of forming a mental picture of something not present and especially of something one has not known or experienced
  2. creative ability
  3. a creation of the mind



Engaging Imagination in the Classroom

Engaging the imagination while teaching a lesson also helps to engage students’ curiosity and to engage students in wondering about the subjects they are learning. Topics come alive with just a simple phrase, such as: “Imagine that…” “What if…” “How might…?” Activating and supporting children’s curiosity stimulates wonder and imagination. Let’s have a look at fostering imagination across subject areas with the use of imaginative prompts and curiosity-based questions.

Questions to Prompt Imaginative Thinking

“What if” questions can be used as prompts to spark imaginative thinking and discussion. Further, these prompts can be used as story starters or as ideas for other forms of creative arts expression, including: drawing, painting, creative dramatics, model building, and more. The following questions make connections between imaginative thinking and topics that relate to literature, social studies, math, and science.

  • What if you were the main character in the book you are reading? What would you do?
  • Imagine that you lived at the time of the California gold rush? Where would you live? What would your life be like?
  • Imagine that you were granted three wishes. What would they be, and what would your life be like after getting these three wishes?
  • What if one of the insects we are studying could talk? Which insect would you want to talk with, and what do you think it would want to say to you?
  • What if there were no straight lines? How would that change the world? How would your life be different?
  • Imagine that you could design an invention that would help people. What would it be? How would it work? What would it do?

Imagination, Emotional Learning, and Well Being

Charlotte Reznick, in her book The Power of Your Child’s Imagination, takes a different approach – using imagination to support emotional growth and well being. She speaks of children using imagination and creativity, daydreaming and fantasy as approaches that help the children learn to manage strong emotions and to create inner calm and peacefulness. She emphasizes the inner worlds that children create. These include imaginary friends, imaginary places, and imaginary communities. These imaginative experiences allow children to create their own ideal experiences – not bounded by the concrete realities of the day-to-day. Guided imagination prompts are provided for calming and quieting the mind and can be used by teachers and parents. An example might read like this: Imagine that you are walking along a path in a beautiful park. The park is filled with trees and flowers. Notice the flowers. What color are they? What shape are they? Walking a bit further, you discover that the path opens up into a small field. Do you see the sun gleaming off the trees and the grass? Can you feel the sun on your shoulders? This is your special place. You can create a cozy spot to rest for a little while. You can choose to take a nap here, or you might curl up and read a favorite book. Enjoy the spot your have created for yourself and we’ll all meet again in our classroom in a few minutes. (Parents might say, “When you are ready, come back to your cozy bed and let yourself fall asleep naturally.)

Keeping Imagination Alive

While young children are naturally imaginative and creative, this natural ability may dwindle if not encouraged. Research has shown that as children get older (at about 4th grade), creative thinking and imagination drops. As parents, educators, and others who work with children, we have a wonderful opportunity to honor imagination and creativity in young children and to keep imagination alive as children grow older. We can purposefully incorporate imaginative thinking and activities in our homes and in our classrooms. Imagine that you brought a little bit more imagination into the lives of the children you are raising and teaching. What would you do? What would that look like? What would change?


Originally published by Free Spirit Press:

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