George Lucas Educational Foundation
Creativity

Stirring Students’ Imaginations

Three strategies for helping upper elementary and middle school students develop their mind’s eye.
A young girl imagines that a pile of small boxes on a table are a house complete with electricity, with a plane and hot-air balloons flying above.
A young girl imagines that a pile of small boxes on a table are a house complete with electricity, with a plane and hot-air balloons flying above.

People often tell children to use their imagination when approaching a task, which comes from the understanding that imagination is a kind of hotbed of potential for learning and creativity in humans. I often give that advice in my own classes, and that was what led me to study imagination in the field of psychology.

What exactly happens when you imagine? There are various explanations. One idea is that when an individual absorbs information, it is likely that some aspect of that new unit of content will be perceived through visualization by an internal mind’s eye. Research has found that individuals engaged in simulation often report imagery or what is called seeing with their mind's eye.

For example, when I say, “Use your imagination,” people are likely to go inward to what could be called an internal visual world. One’s eyes might even shift downward or inward, or one might close them entirely. This occurs naturally and tends to demonstrate that imagination is a type of experience that happens inside of people, as if it were glimpses of a projected film that you view.

Researchers continue to speculate that this internal mind’s eye is capable of many things. It helps perception go beyond the constraints of time and space. As a result, an individual can visualize or predict the imminent or distant future by filling in information. Imagination can also help people visualize worlds they may read about or create through suggestion.

If you wish to increase upper elementary and middle school students’ comprehension and problem-solving skills, here are three imagination strategies to try out.

1. Use the Language of Imagination With Intention

For imagination to be valued in any learning setting, the language of imagination should first be fostered. When you say, “Use your imagination,” let the intention of it come from a sense of knowing that it is an innate experience for many to go inward to their mind’s eye and have that unique experience of visualizing images that may or may not exist.

Follow up with other language such as visualize or see, sense, perceive, mental image, and experience, as these terms are congruent with imagination’s role in human consciousness. While visualizing is typical to humans, mental images may vary, so affirming differences is also critical.

2. Encourage Visualization to Go Beyond Time and Space

After a more active task, you can activate the imagination to calm students by telling them they’ll take a mental journey. Tell them to close their eyes and take a moment of silence as they listen to your voice. You can play calming music with no lyrics to encourage a feeling of travel or transcendence.

Afterward, tell your students that they’re going to take a journey to a new world, silently. Speak slowly and provide guidance in the form of suggestions. Tell them, “This world is a safe one that feels good to go to.” Tell them they can travel through time and space, and ask, “How will you get there?” Students should not respond as they are visualizing content. You can state that their arrival will happen in five seconds and count down, slowly.

When they arrive, let students know they can explore the world. Questions you might ask: What do you see/hear/feel? How do you move through this world? What is something you see that is different from things on Earth?

It’s recommended that you not only speak slowly but let a bit of time go by between each suggestion. At the end, have students share what they saw with a partner or partners, and have students write about what they imagined.

3. Use Gap-Fill Storytelling

This exercise can be used with native and non-native English speakers starting as young as second or third grade, and will support their ability to use their imagination to fill in information.

Take four images from a children’s book or a magazine, or draw four images yourself. Make sure the images have a shared setting and that there’s a similar character in each image. Sort students into groups of four (or let them set up their own groups), and have one student per group come up and look at only one of the images. Tell the students to create a mental image of the picture, as if they had an internal camera to take a photo. When they return to their respective groups, each student reports what they saw. Have the second member of each group come up to see the second image, and so on.

After all students have shared what they saw, have each group write a “once upon a time” short story, as a group, that integrates the photos in a creative way. Each group should then read their story aloud to the class. If you want to increase creative capacity, they could act it out using dialogue and action, props, and costumes.

Based on these strategies, what do you imagine it would be like doing these exercises in class? Take a moment to visualize how you could engage imaginative processes in your classroom.

About the Author
  • Diana Rivera Where education, creativity and psychology intersect is where I play, profess and provide professional services!
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Tyš Síbrůková's picture

Hi, Tish from Creatubbles (https://ctbl.es/l5xb9a). Let me begin by thanking you for this article. It always interesting to explore the connection between organic means of learning, like imagination or curiosity, and psychological approaches.

In answering your question of how one would imagine it in class, I once saw a similar exercise as #2 tasked to a group of 4th graders in a theater troupe. The troupe was asked to close their eyes and imagine a sunny beach. The prompter would ask questions about the sound, smell, how they were feeling, etc. -- and they could develop their story in this way. This is where I would immediately go to.

What I find most interesting is the use of "visualize," "percieve" "experience" and "how will you get there?" It transforms this approach of using one's imagination from a tool used particularly for creative subjects, to a more universal channel. Children tackling core subjects could use these imagination exercises to think creatively and find original ways of problem solving.

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Diana Rivera's picture
Diana Rivera
Where education, creativity and psychology intersect is where I play, profess and provide professional services!

Thank you for your response! I also agree that, without intentionally indicating it, the use of language helps establish how children or adults should experience imagination. I ask myself daily, practically, if there are universal aspects to imagination. Perhaps language matters. I wonder what these words would translate to in other languages and perhaps the meaning of each word might have a social context that is particular. This would certainly enhance an understanding of imagination and learning.

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