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Make Way for Imagination

I grew up in a house that backed onto eight acres of bird sanctuary. An only child of hard-working parents, I often found myself alone in the woods climbing trees, building forts, or listening to the sounds of leaves crunching beneath my feet and strange birds chattering above my head. Or I got together with the neighborhood kids, creating complex games with elaborate rules that could last whole summers. I also read. A lot. As a result, I developed a pretty good imagination.

My family moved several times and I entered unfamiliar schools and towns without the constant of a sibling or even a pet. In second grade, we moved to Delaware for one year. When learning about Australia, I raised my hand and claimed I had a kangaroo. Of course, the teacher didn’t believe me. But I was so persistent and convincing as I invented story after story, day after day, that soon the whole class, including the teacher, believed in my kangaroo—until my mom visited and busted my myth.

Still, my imagination eased what might have been a scary transition for a 7-year-old; my stories gave me a voice in a new community; and the belief those stories engendered in my listeners fed a life-long love of writing and storytelling.

Although I didn’t articulate it at the time, each move became an opportunity to reflect and improve. I acknowledged the traits I appreciated and examined those I wished to change. My imagination fueled my ability to reinvent myself while developing my ability to analyze and improve my performance—critical skills for academic success.

Imagination also enhanced my self-confidence. As I played at being an explorer, teacher, actress or kangaroo owner, I experienced the world as limitless. In a fantasy world, we can be and accomplish anything we wish. As parents, we can combat real-world injustices by encouraging our children to go beyond the boundaries of our stereotyped world. If you suggest “U.S. president” as a role play, your little girl won’t be hemmed in by the fact that there’s never been a female president. In our imagination, anything is possible.

Imaginary play has the power to stretch us beyond our limits not just in our daily actions but in our expression as well. We could easily get through our day with very few vocabulary words. Yet when we imagine that we are pilots in a rainstorm, knights in a castle or explorers in Egypt, our vocabulary grows and deepens alongside our stories.

I once heard Holly Black, a fantasy author, say that she thought writers in the genre were especially adept at detailed descriptions because they had to make their created worlds seem real.

The same might be said about the process of imagination. As I listen to my children imagine scenarios, play is accompanied by a long trail of talk. As they create this world they plan to inhabit for the next 15 minutes, their descriptive talk becomes as important as the cardboard box that has transformed into a race car or a rainbow.

As an only child, I did not learn to negotiate and share the way many of my friends did: at the end of the fists or the insults of their siblings. Instead, I observed and interacted with my friends. To be sure, my social skills were likely honed on the streets of our neighborhood as we role-played or constructed those endless games.

These days I love listening to my own two children build a world together. At first, my oldest took the lead as my son repeated her declarations, but lately I’ve seen my daughter step back and her brother contribute. Group imaginative play helps children take turns with their words as carefully as they do with their toys. In a variety of imagined settings, children take ownership of their entertainment, try out social norms and experiment with solutions to problems.

Imagination is at the core of your child’s ability to respond well to a nasty comment on the playground or a snatched-away toy. Imagination is the cornerstone of every story from authors as diverse as Dr. Seuss and Charles Dickens. Imagination feeds beauty in the form of masterpieces by Michelangelo, concertos by Bach, structures by Frank Lloyd Wright, and landscapes by Frederick Law Olmsted. Imagination is also the hidden heart of such academic skills as critical thinking, understanding one’s own thought processes and creative problem-solving.

And yet our children’s imagination is at risk. In the last year, school time devoted to standardized tests has increased dramatically. Even in kindergarten, 5-year-olds are forced to bubble in answer sheets to tests that measure their competency in every discipline—even physical education. Worst of all, these tests are high-stakes tests. This means that ranking, funding and even teachers’ job security are tied to standardized tests. As a result, more class time is devoted to test prep, even at the earliest grades.

Outside of school, our children are busier than ever, often with multiple events and activities scheduled within a week. It’s no surprise that after exhausting days at school, long sports practices, music lessons and religious commitments, our children just want to unwind in front of a television or video game and lose themselves in someone else’s stories.

But imagination is essential. Albert Einstein wrote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Without the creative problem-solving it teaches us, we resort to violence. Without the critical thinking it allows, we don’t notice injustice, let alone question it. Without the dreaming it nurtures, we are doomed to accept the world as it is rather than as it might be.

This year, try to carve out more space for imagination. If you dislike increased testing, write to your representatives and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Next month, I’ll offer concrete ways to invite imagination back into your children’s lives.   

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.


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