I've been thinking a lot about things that fire a child's imagination lately, due in large part to having finished reading Winter Holiday, which I wrote about yesterday. In the Swallows and Amazons series, the thing that strikes me over and over is the spectacular imaginary world the children create together, often based on the things they have read and learned. They play out themes and stories from Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, geography lessons as they explore Kanchenjunga (the third tallest mountain in the world), and even poetry they had heard. (Titty names an outcropping near the farm where they are living the Peak in Darien. It is from a line in a poem, "On first looking into Chapman's Homer", by Keats.) They have rich imaginations because their minds have been filled with rich ideas.
These ideas have been communicated to them through words either read by themselves or heard as they were read to them. This listening and reading required many things from the children. The images these words inspired were provided by the children's own minds. It was the jumping off point for greater imagination as they became the basis for the children's play. This is very different from our current culture where it seems everything is provided by images. While the images themselves may be highly imaginative, it was the imagination of the creator that was at work and not the imagination of the audience. The audience was essentially passive, with the effort required merely to have ones eyes open.
I have children who appreciate the artistic efforts of graphic books and they stylistic choices of movies, but while they are interesting to look at they do not require the same effort as listening or reading a book does. I believe we lose something and our children especially lose something when we do not require people to make a practice of using ones imagination. As with anything going on in our brains, if it is not exercised and used, the neural real-estate is quickly taken over by other functions that are being used. By not asking our children to use their imaginations... by providing too many easy-to-consume images and too much pre-packed activities... are we slowly eradicating their ability to even have one? A world where no one has imagination is a bleak world, indeed.
I wonder if it is any surprise that the increase in the prevalence of screens comes at the same time that children's free time has been severely curtailed. It becomes a slippery slope. Children have difficulty entertaining themselves, so adults, driven to distraction by loose-ended children, plan more of their activities for them. And so on, and so on. Yet open-ended, non-adult-led play is so important to more than the imagination. As Jane Healy writes in her book, Different Learners: Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Your Child's Learning Problems:
"Neuroscientist Adele Diamond has studied the development of executive function in children's brains, and she is sold on the power of the environment to either teach or erode these important skills of self-restraint and self-management. 'I think a lot of kids get diagnosed with ADHD now, not all buy many just because they never learned how to exercise self-control, self-regulation, the executive functions early,' she remarked in a National Public Radio report. Curiously enough, one reason may be a decline in another type of children's play: the unstructured, imaginative kind in which they have to rely on themselves for planning and executing their improvisations. This kind of play naturally provides good exercise for developing brains -- especially systems for controlling emotions, resisting impulses, and exerting self-discipline. Dr. Diamond believes that even older children can benefit from creative play. 'You need games that require children to stop and think,' she says, 'and I have not seen any [video games] like that.'" (pp. 86-97)
I have seen first hand that the things my children learn best are the ideas and concepts that they have 'played'. It seems it is through playing that they make these ideas their own. We focus a lot these days about the food we give to our children. It sometimes feels as though preparing a healthy diet has become a more important religion than most religions. Yet do we stop to even think about the diet of ideas we are feeding our children's minds? And which do we believe is more important? They are good questions to think about.