“Pretend you’re the baby, and I’m the mommy. Baby, go to sleep now!”
“Outta the way! I’m the policeman. Here’s your ticket. I have to keep you safe.”
Imagination. What a wonderful tool. But is it for play, or for learning?
This past fall our classrooms explored the fall harvest. Some of this exploration came from baking, reading, and analyzing the various objects. But they were also explored by imagining. We saw our students imagine a whole world inside pumpkins: they imagined babies, mommies, and daddies living in there; they have imagined rocks and wolves and gremlins emerging when they cut a pumpkin open. Were they playing, or were they learning?
Alison Gopnik, professor of philosophy and developmental psychology at UC Berkeley, writes that, “for young children, the imaginary worlds seem just as important and appealing as the real ones.” She extrapolates this from a study in which the researcher asked children to imagine a monster in a box. “Children said very clearly that really there was no monster in the box, and that they would not see one if they opened the box—they were just imagining it. Nevertheless, when the experimenter left the room many children gingerly moved away from the box.”
When we imagine, we are showing our understanding both of what the world is as well as what it might be. Gopnik continues, “Having a causal theory of the world makes it possible to consider alternate solutions. It’s because we know about this world that we can create possible worlds.”
Every time our children imagine, every time they begin a sentence with “Pretend that…” they are learning about the limits of reality as well as the potential of the future. The gap between these, the limit and the potential, is where their deep learning resides. If we are to view our children as active agents of change in the world, we are not content with their intake of skills and knowledge but rather implore them to create new knowledge as they go. As Gopnik maintains, “Children pretend so much because they are learning so much.”
So let us turn to our experts on the subject—our young children. Documentation from a Pre-K classroom’s discussion on imagination yielded, frankly, brilliant insight. We heard from one student, “Using your imagination is when you think of something that is not real; if you make something that no brothers or sisters have ever made and you just decide to make it and it’s your idea.” And from another, “Imagination is when you use your brain to find good things.”
Imagination, then, allows us to use our learning to create a better world. Were we to play, learn, question, and answer within the limits of reality, our children would be left to replicate the world as we know it.
By encouraging and nourishing their wild imaginations and theories, they are allowed to create the world as they would see it. Let us give them time (decades) and space (physical and mental), and see what kind of world they will create for themselves.