Imagine that


Imagination: a word, an ability most associate with the innocent and care-free days of childhood. Time spent playing pirates, creating worlds, becoming part of something outside of reality. But what actually is imagination?

 This is a question widely open to interpretation and opinions. To different people it means different things, as there is no certain definition to what imagination actually is. To me, when I think of imagination I think creativity, the ability to create worlds and characters, to form images and stories in my head. Others may define it as the ability to confront problems with new solutions, while the dictionary defines imagination as all of these things. Similarly, the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy says to imagine is to “represent possibilities other than the actual, to represent times other than the present, and to represent perspectives other than one’s own.”, bringing in ideas of empathy in connection to imagination.

 Despite the notion that imagination is simply a pastime for children used only within “pretend” play, it plays a vital role in child development resulting in individuality and innovation in a child’s later life. In fact, Albert Einstein himself stated:

 “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

 According to Miracle Recreation blog, imagination, specifically the act of pretending, aids in a child’s development of empathy and understanding. This helps develop feelings of security and social harmony. It can also help a child’s self-esteem by giving them the confidence to be anything they want. Additionally, while playing with others, they work on skills like cooperation, negotiation, collaboration, and sharing of responsibilities. Finally, and perhaps most obviously, it enhances creative ability, which later aids in the discovery and invention of new things.

 For adults it can play an equally vital role. When we as humans imagine, we create mental images that are connected and formed from our own experiences, memories, and perspectives. Through this, as David Brooks stated in his New York Times article, it helps us perceive not only our own reality, but also practice empathy by ‘trying on’ different realities and experiencing other viewpoints. This can create an open mindset which, personally I find is important for both acquiring knowledge and cooperation. Furthermore, like solving puzzles and problems, imagining is a way of exercising the brain.

 So how does it develop? Are we simply born with the ability or is it something to be nurtured and grown over time?

 With children, their imagination can be developed through activities such as reading, having play-time, especially outdoors in nature, asking and answering questions and practicing empathy by putting oneself in another’s shoes. While it’s better to build a strong imagination as a child, adults too can build on their imagination by also reading and spending time outdoors, but also creating complex and varied lenses through which to see the world. A New York Times article on a similar subject quoted novelist Zadie Smith, who said within her childhood she would always wonder what it would be like to grow up as her friends did, an activity ‘simple’ enough for all ages, no matter child or adult.

 As it is something that is developed through time, it means, like most skills, it can both increase and decrease. Usually, as we grow older, we have less of an imagination as we begin to learn the notion of there being right and wrong. However, studies carried out by Professor Kyung Hee Kim, a creativity researcher at the college of William and Mary, have unfortunately shown that imagination and creativity in children living within the US has in fact been decreasing since 1990.

 In her studies, Professor Kim references the Torrance Test (Torrance Tests of Creative thinking), a test used to measure a child’s divergent thinking skills. Since 1990s results of this Torrance Test has shown that this this aptly labelled “Creativity Crisis” has had a number of effects on children, including: 

  • A loss in curiosity and passion, especially when learning
  • Narrowing visions, meaning children have shown a decrease in empathy and compassion for those in need
  • Lowering expectations and avoiding risk-taking due to a fear of making mistakes
  • Avoiding collaboration with others

 These, however, are only some of the effects of this loss in creativity and imagination, of which Professor Kyung Hee Kim believes to be mainly caused by both schooling systems and government policies. While passive and non-interactive activities such as watching TV can play a role in limiting imagination, Professor Kim presents the idea that standardized tests such as the SAT also play a significant role. The practice of standardized testing only encourages a student to focus only on learning the subjects tested, instead of allowing the student to develop a curiosity and passion for acquiring knowledge in general. Italso instills the idea of right and wrong answers into children causing fear of failure.

 This increased use of standardized tests in the US has been a result of the “No Child Left Behind” act of Congress passed in 2001, which sees the requirement of all schools to carry out standardized testing to control the standard of education across the different states. Professor Kim believes that these tests could possibly hamper children’s creativity. Her studies show that while SAT scores are gradually increasing, the Torrance test scores are gradually decreasing.

 Another factor mentioned by psychologist Sandra Russ, is parents overbooking children’s schedules. Now-a-days it seems that children’s schedules are filled with after-school activities, which may be creative per say (for example art class, or a musical instrument), but in reality, with these overfilled schedules children no longer have as much time to simply play. As previously stated, playing and ‘pretend play’ are extremely important in developing a child’s ability to imagine and create.

 So, to conclude, imagination is a vital component in the evolution of our society as it develops individuality and paves the way to innovation of new technology, philosophy/ ideologies and discoveries which create the society we now live in. By ensuring the younger generations build strong imaginations that continue developing into adulthood, we are ensuring the future development of our society into, hopefully, a better one. Personally I believe that with imagination the world becomes a little wider, reality a little richer and life more open with more opportunities. What’s not to like?