Imagine That! Creative Thinking and Learning

By Susan Daniels, Ph.D., author of Visual Learning and Teaching: An Essential Guide for Educators K–8

Imagine That! Creative Thinking and LearningImagination is more important than knowledge.
—Albert Einstein

Imagination (noun)

  1. the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality
  2. creative ability
  3. a creation of the mind
    Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary

A vivid imagination is a hallmark 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 even in 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, “Okay, 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 are 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?

Engaging Imagination in the Classroom
Engaging students’ imagination while teaching a lesson also helps engage their curiosity 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 their wonder and imagination. Let’s have a look at fostering imagination across subject areas with the use of imaginative prompts and curiosity-based questions.

Imagine That! Creative Thinking and LearningQuestions 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 relating 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, creativity, daydreaming, and fantasy as approaches that help them learn to manage strong emotions and create inner calm and peacefulness. She emphasizes the inner worlds that children create—worlds that include imaginary friends, imaginary places, and imaginary communities. These allow children to create their own ideal experiences not bound by the concrete realities of their day-to-day lives. Reznick provides guided imagination prompts that teachers and parents can read to kids for calming and quieting the mind. 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 farther, 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 you 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 it is not encouraged. Research has shown that as children get older (around fourth grade), creative thinking and imagination drop. 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 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?

Susan DanielsDr. Susan Daniels is a professor, an author, a consultant, and an educational director of a psychoeducational center that specializes in the needs of gifted, creative, and twice-exceptional children. She has been a professional development specialist for over twenty years, regularly providing workshops and training on creativity and visual learning and teaching. Susan is an avid doodler who enjoys working visually in her journals, and she is dedicated to supporting teachers’ development of visual literacy and enhanced understanding of visual learning and teaching strategies. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Visual Learning and TeachingSusan is the author of Visual Learning and Teaching: An Essential Guide for Educators K–8


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