Student Engagement

Cultivating Imagination

October 9, 2013
Photo credit: Veer

Einstein once said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."1 His message is even more profound if you read the rest of the passage, "For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world . . . "2 These words are even truer today than when he first said them in 1929. It wasn't so long ago that many people said, "Knowledge is power." But in this age of Big Data, that is no longer true. What we do with that knowledge is more important. Our new mantra should be, "Imagination is power."

Practice and Wailing

Imagination is play for the brain. It is a form of artistry and a state of putting pieces together in new and unique ways. I liken it to jazz, an improvisational ability where musical masters are able to intuit the next note, the next phrase. But you can only improvise after you've mastered the instrument. As the great jazz saxophone player Charlie Parker describes it, "You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail."

Let's unpack this jazz lesson. In order to put things together in new ways, we've got to be acquainted with them. This requires that we gain an intimacy or experience with concepts before they can be synthesized in our subconscious to imagine something new. To enable this, we need to play with concepts at every step of learning. This allows us to understand what we know, and strengthens our ability to imagine something new down the road. Not having some degree of comfort with concepts puts students at a disadvantage for using their imagination. This is why we cannot solely teach to tests. Tests kill imagination.

An Imagination Boost

As Einstein said, "Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life's coming attractions." All ideas have two births -- the one in our minds followed by the one from our hands. We must help children learn how to create ideas and exercise their imagination. It is important to carve out time for free play, because free play teaches the importance of imagination and helps build social and emotional development. The data says that it's good to let kids be, well, kids.

And science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) offers a way teach this. What we may have forgotten is that STEM is based on imagination. Just take a look at how your day starts. Without STEM, there'd be no cell phones, microwave ovens, Internet, GPS, cars and refrigerators -- and these are just the things you see before lunchtime. These ideas started in someone's mind, and with the right resources and skills, they were able to manifest them. Let's give our children the palette to create, too. Stoking the fire of imagination will make our children the pilots of the future and not just the passengers.

How a Toy Killed Imagination

Some would say that play changed radically in the late 1950s. Enter Mattel's "Thunder Burp" Machine Gun.3 The most significant thing about this toy is that children's play shifted from the activity of play to being focused on the toy itself. No longer were children swashbuckling pirates using tree branches as swords. Kids stopped making toys, stopped improvising, stopped creating, and played in specific ways using cues from the toys themselves. The Thunder Burp was a blow to imagination.

So what do we do? Well, I'm not saying to take toys away from kids. That's probably a form of child abuse somewhere. But I am saying that it would be nice every now and then to promote free play. Buy a toy without an end goal, like a set of building blocks, and make something that isn't one of the examples pictured on the storage box. Reenact scenarios with kids using symbolic props (like a hair brush for a microphone), and teach children how to make their own props. Allow kids to make fortresses from couch pillows and to toboggan down the stairs in a sleeping bag (my personal favorite). Play. It builds their imagination. Building with blocks now prepares children to build better ideas in the future.


1Viereck, G.S. "What Life Means to Einstein: An Interview," The Saturday Evening Post, 26 October 1929, p.17.
2Einstein, A. Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms. Dover Publications, New York, 1931.
3Spiegel, A. "Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills." In Morning Edition. NPR, Washington, DC, 2008.

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