By Susan Daniels, Ph.D., author of Visual Learning and Teaching: An Essential Guide for Educators K–8
Young children exude imagination and often make up imaginary characters that have imaginary conversations in imaginary worlds. Imagination comes naturally to children. While imagination is considered by some to be merely a whimsical pastime for the young, it is so very much more!
Imagination is a superpower, one we all have. It allows us to draw upon our capacities for creativity and visual thinking—for going beyond what is to what might be. Creativity, visual thinking, and imagination allow us to picture possibilities. In our imaginations, we can explore ideas, things, people, and places that are not part of our present environment. We can imagine things that have happened in the past, and we can think of things that are not real—or not real yet.
We can use our creativity and visual thinking to design new possibilities. For example, we can imagine a cake we want to bake for a special occasion and how to decorate it. We can imagine a spaceship arriving from another dimension and appearing in the earth’s orbit. We can imagine a character for a short story or a graphic novel. We can imagine how we want to spend time on a vacation.
There are so many possibilities for using imagination! A vivid imagination is one of the hallmark characteristics of creative thinking. Imagination is also at the core of learning.
Imagination—the Core of Learning
Lev Vygotsky—an early and eminent 20th-century developmental psychologist—considered imagination as 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. According to Vygotsky, imaginative behavior is based on the brain’s ability to draw from, combine, and recombine elements from our previous experiences, generating ideas for something new. He said:
“The brain is not only the organ that stores and retrieves our previous experience; it is also the organ that combines and creatively reworks elements of this past experience and uses them to generate new propositions and new behavior. . . . This creative activity, based on the ability of our brain to combine elements, is called imagination or fantasy in psychology.”
Further, many contemporary developmental and cognitive psychologists consider imagination to be central to all thought. Imagination helps us learn new concepts. It provides opportunities for relaxation in moments of daydreaming and reverie. It fuels our creativity and problem-solving abilities.
Applied Imagination—Where Creativity and Visual Thinking Meet
As teachers and parents, we can nurture this superpower of imagination to support children’s creative thinking and learning. One simple and inspiring way to do this is by posing questions and engaging children in imaginative mindplay. We might ask, for example:
- Imagine if dogs fit in the palm of your hand. What would that be like for dogs? What would it be like for you?
- What if people didn’t walk but instead bounced like pogo sticks?
- What if people could fly like birds? How would it feel to fly? How would life change?
- Imagine that insects could talk. What might they say to us?
- What would a furry lollapalooza look like? What would it be like to have one as a pet?
- If you were to have magic powers, what would they be? And what would you do?
- What if people were only two inches tall? What would the world look like to them? How would they live differently?
- What invention could you create that would help people the most in their daily lives?
These open-ended questions will get children’s imaginations engaged. You can also have children think up their own questions for double the imaginative play. Further, these questions can be used as prompts for creating drawings, stories, illustrations, designs, and inventions.
Drawing, Creativity, and Visual Thinking
So, now I’d like to share a personal experience I had while teaching adult students—teachers and counselors in graduate school—about creative thinking and approaches for nurturing creativity in youth. I’ve been a professor of education and psychology for over 20 years. One of my favorite university classes I’ve taught is on creativity, thinking, and problem-solving. At the start of the class, we would discuss assignments in the course syllabus—one of which was to keep a sketchbook of creative ideas throughout the semester. Inevitably, some of the students would say, “But I can’t draw.” I would reply, “But everyone can doodle!” And the sketchbooks were to be used for simple sketching—or doodling—and writing about creative ideas and imaginings.
Initially, I’d encourage students to think back to their childhood and how exciting it was to get new pencils or new crayons, perhaps at the start of a new school year. Pencils and crayons in the hands of a child hold potential for worlds of possibilities. Most children are eager to pick up pencils, crayons. or markers to draw, without thinking about if their drawings look “good enough.”
Children draw spontaneously and often whimsically and dramatically. A flower can be as big as a house, a horse as small as a mouse, and a dragon can fill an entire sheet of paper while a person in the picture is not even one inch tall. Some childhood drawings are simple, while others are quite elaborate. Children draw for fun and to express ideas. Anything is possible in the drawings of young children.
Typically, young children don’t judge their creations. The inner critic doesn’t usually emerge until about fourth grade, when children become more self-conscious, and research has shown that there is a creativity slump at this point. Think of how teachers might help counter this slump if they themselves let go of that inner critic, freeing their minds and their drawing hands to express their creative ideas.
So, after discussing children’s drawings and different approaches for illustrating ideas, I’d then ask the graduate students to engage in a sketching warm-up activity. I’d hand out a page of circles or parallel lines and ask the class to use these circles or lines as the starting point to make as many different things that they could think of.
Further, the visual prompts could be developed to make a story. I would encourage the students to add details to their first images to make their drawings more elaborate and more interesting and to show a part of what the story might be. Some of the designs for the circles included a place setting with food for a special meal, a snowman with a hat and carrot nose, a futuristic car with a space alien driving it, the face of a wizard with a pointed hat, and a person riding a unicycle. The last direction I would give was to create an interesting title to go with their story designs.
We’d then share our designs with a partner or in a small group and discuss them. I would encourage students to look at each other’s designs with an eye for the ideas depicted and not to critique each other’s work for artistic ability. It is not necessary to have artistic ability to make use of doodles and simple drawings to express the ideas one imagines! Next we’d discuss how simple sketching ideas can be used with children in elementary and middle school to support their creativity and to provide another way to depict what they imagine.
What Can I Draw? A List of Creative Drawing Prompts
Over many years of working with both children and adults, I’ve collected dozens of creative prompts and drawing ideas. Here are twenty-five of them. I hope these will inspire you to doodle, draw, design, create, and write stories with children in your life, in the classroom and at home. Let the imagination, creativity, and learning flourish—and enjoy!
- An octopus’s birthday party
- A fancy butterfly
- A new invention
- Clothes on a clothesline
- A vase full of flowers
- A mother and baby anteater
- Life in the year 2999
- A parade of different bugs
- People who can fly
- The floorplan of your bedroom
- An illustration for a story or graphic novel
- Friendly monsters
- Your hands
- 100 cats—all different
- How music sounds
- A design for a new playground
- How you felt at a happy time or a sad time
- A bouncy dog
- A shy dog
- An underwater city
- A dragonfly
- A fairy godmother or godfather
- You as a creative superhero!
Dr. 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 20 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.
Susan is the author of Visual Learning and Teaching: An Essential Guide for Educators K–8.
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