Monday, May 30, 2011

Stimulating Children's Imaginations: Creating Time, Freedom and Space

Boys in the 1950s (Courtesy 'Chapel Hill Memories')
When I was a child my weekly timetable involved little more than 5 elements: chores morning and evening for 15-20 minutes (e.g. feeding my pets, collecting the eggs, washing my own dishes), food, school and play for the post school hours (except for dinner and a little television or radio). Weekends were even less complex - rise, eat, disappear with friends, return at dark, eat, go to bed. The only punctuation to my weekends was Saturday morning sport (after I'd reached the age of 10) and sometimes a matinee movie on Saturday and Sunday School the next day if my uncle could find me. Large periods of time were available for me to play outside, explore the world, and do things with friends.

The contrast between my childhood life in the 1950s and 60s and that of the average child in a middle-class western family is dramatically different. To some extent the difference is partly due to my working class roots and a degree of parental neglect, but most children's lives had more similarities to mine than differences. Childhood was very different and while there was a downside there were some advantages. One key difference worth noting is that children had a greater degree of freedom, time and 'space' to do many self-directed things.

Anthony Esolen in his book 'Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child' suggests that one of the ways we kill children's imaginations is by never leaving them to plan their own time and work to their own agendas. We rarely allow space for them to dream up great schemes and projects, undertake 'great' adventures, and to plan and create things with other children or even adults. He suggests that if children are left to their own devices and spend time with other children they will create cultures of their own. By now every modern parent will be a little defensive and will list all the dangers of allowing children out on their own and the problems of kids forming gangs and so on. I'm aware of the dangers. I'm not for a minute suggesting that it's realistic for children to have the freedom I had as a child, nor do I suggest that we remove all planned activities from children's lives. But what I am suggesting is that we need balance and if we do provide space and time children's imaginations will be allowed to roam more freely.

Brush Creek Today
As a child, I concocted many plans and 'big' ideas with my friends and acted on many of them. The pinnacle of our efforts was perhaps the 'Brush Creek Soccer Club'. This was conceived after a fight with another boy on the bus on the way home from school. He was from Glendale, while I was from Young Wallsend. He tripped me as I entered the bus. I responded as boys do and a friendship was born out of mutual respect. We found out that we both liked soccer; a friendly match was set up between a team made up of my 'Hill Street' mates and his 'Glendale Crew'. We visited them and they beat us soundly. The worst part was that they had a girl on their team and she was better than most of our players.

We began planning immediately for a re-match. But first there was the matter of a suitable home ground. There was no oval near Hill Street, but there was a paddock at the bottom of the street, near the creek. Could we build our own ground? The Brush Creek Football Club was born and its home ground conceived! We spent a whole weekend clearing and levelling the rough paddock, another building some goals (from tea tree trunks) and fitting nets made out of chicken wire. To top it off, I spent every afternoon after school for two weeks building a grandstand against a giant gum tree near the sideline. We never beat the 'Glendale Crew' in one of our grudge matches, but our soccer ground was the envy of our opponents and lived on for a number of years.

How can we encourage children's imaginative play today?

I quoted the great educational psychologist Jean Piaget in a previous post on 'Creativity' (here), who said:

“The principal goal of education is to create [people] who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done – [people] who are creative, inventive and discoverers."

Above: Rebecca & Elsie create a beach boat to take them on a journey
Imagination and creativity is fundamental to human advancement and are qualities to be valued and nurtured. And yet, it is so easy to constrain and conform our children with a resultant loss of originality, innovation and discovery. The devaluing of these things can lead to a loss of enjoyment, motivation, creativity and a stifling of children's imaginations. As John Holt expressed it:

What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out. (John Holt, 1981)

What are some simple ways we can foster this?
  • Provide time for children to explore their world within the confines of a safe space that has supervised boundaries.
  • Offer opportunities for both structured and unstructured play.
  • Give fantasy an important place through books, film and inventive play situations.
  • Create an environment that encourages the child to do things with other people where a non-school goal is shared.
  • Try to enhance opportunities for children to explore their environment.
  • Encourage deep learning of things that interest the child that will be the seedbed of 'great' projects (hobbies and special interests are a good start).
  • Offer new experiences and situations that challenge children to find out, seek solutions and solve problems.
  • Encourage learning, expression and exploration in situations that emphasize the generation of ideas, solutions and forms of expression that are divergent as well as convergent (see previous post for more detail).
While we cannot allow children in this age the same freedom that I had as a child, we can restore some balance in children's use of time and the opportunities that we give them to dream dreams, make plans and act on these ideas. Time and space to think, talk, read and explore are vital to the development of the imagination of any child.
"Alice laughed. There's no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” ('Through the Looking Glass', Lewis Carroll)

Some posts on this blog that offer practical ideas to stimulate creativity

Two great books that will help:

'The Dangerous Book for Boys' (HERE)
'The Daring Book for Girls' (HERE)

Other posts and resources:

'The Role of Adults in Children's Play' (HERE)
'Understanding and Developing Creativity' (HERE)
'Stifling Creativity: The School as Factory' (HERE)
'The Power of Simple Play' (HERE)
'Nurturing Creativity in Children' (HERE)
'Stories in a Box: Stimulating language, writing & imagination' (HERE)
'Firsthand Experience, Literacy & Learning' (HERE)


Denise said...

I agree wholeheartedly with this post. This is, to a large extent, why I decided to homeschool. My son's imagination was so vivid that I just couldn't bear the though of tying him down to a desk for a better part of the day. He just turned 10 and he still "plays" for good chunks of the day in his imaginary world - although not as much as before. And the games he and his friends make up are so intricate that I have a terrible time following... so I'm happy to leave them to their own devises :)I will miss it when he outgrows this altogether. I have enjoyed every moment of it and don't regret our decision to allow him this time in his life.

Anonymous said...

I worry about kids today. Their toys do everything for them. They don't socialize playing games. When I was a kid I spent hours outside, playing games and interacting with peers.

I had a teacher in 3rd grade. She introduced me to reading. The projects she gave us with each book stretched our imagination.

Every six weeks we were required to do a project on a book. On HAT DAY a hat was passed around the class and we each fished for a book and project category. The projects ranged from things like dressing up as a character or the author and giving a report to the class to creating an art project with beans to making a poster (black poster board, chalk dust and glue. It wasmake a picture or macaroni or a baggy full of miscellaneous shapes to creating a game that taught the moral of the book. It was very challenging and so much fun.
J. Aday Kennedy
The Differently-Abled Writer & Speaker
Children's Author of Stella the Fire Farting Dragon (April 2010)

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comments Denise & Aday. Nice to hear from you again Denise, sounds like your children enjoy a stimulating world.

I also worry about dependence on toys and devices for fun too Aday. The 'Hat Day' idea is brilliant, you must have had a great teacher.

Appreciate your comments.

Cara said...

Great post. We are currently thinking through these issues as our eldest is 5yrs old. My husband said to me recently - 'he has enough lego (about 4 creator sets). The worst thing we could do for his imagination is to keep buying him more lego. Creativity will be born out of boredom or having to make his 'old' lego 'new' again.'

We have been stimulated by Richard Louv's book 'Last Child in the Woods'. Have you come across his work?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Cara,

Thanks for your comment. I love the comment from your husband about making his 'old lego new again'.

I haven't read the book you mention, I'll follow it up.