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Ten Steps for Tapping Into Your Child's Imagination

By Alan Haskvitz


No greater source than Albert Einstein said that the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but intelligence. As such, it is almost an indignity when schools are forced to stuff children full of facts without bowing to the greater good of creativity and the encouragement of the imagination. It is by far the most overlooked part of a child's education.

Imagination is difficult to define. It is obviously an intellectual mechanism that takes existing data and reintroduces it in a variety of forms. But what makes some people have abundance and others fear it. Research indicates that imagination starts with a child's play-instinct. This is the ability for children to recreate something with themselves as a centerpiece.

Imagination requires the reformation of existing outcomes. Call it a form of empathy. Nourishing such thinking can be stimulated by "What would Happen" questions. This parent or teacher could easily do, especially in dealing with social studies. Recreating is a great way to enhance imagination.

Perhaps the sorriest part of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the fact that the total emphasis is on standardized testing results and offers no incentives for the creative. Not that these are two mutually exclusive goals, but given a limited amount of time in a school year, it is easier to just stress the cognitive data rather than salute both inductive and deductive solutions to problems from a variety of perceptions.

For example, in my classes I teach the students how to calculate how fast they walk and relate that to the distances explorers covered. They next have a chance to apply that knowledge to discovering an imaginary island. They write about what they might see, draw maps, and even describe the flora and fauna. Thus their math skills are enhanced and inculcated into the realm of their imaginations. Could that be measured on a standardized test? No. However, if a question came up that required converting distance and time they would be prepared and if they are confronted with the absurd possibility that they may actually have to walk someplace they could at least have an idea of the duration of the agony of the feet.

In a balanced society the goal should be to produce well-rounded students, not lean to the side of good test takers. Indeed, in Singapore, long a leader in test score performances, parents have actively complained that the only thing their children knew was how to take tests, and over 30% of the students believed that life was not worth living.

Truth be told, most students have a rich and varied imagination that can eke its way out if given a chance. Howard Gardner, who introduced the concept of multi-intelligences, pinpointed several areas where children can excel in their ability to do things better. These include musical, spatial, linguistic, math, relationships, and others that serve as a good base for the further development of an innovative child.

There are a few online tests that can give you a bit on insight into which area a child or student might have the most interest, but most parents and teachers are probably well aware of their offspring's strong suits.

Ten Steps

Imagination is global, no one country has a lock on it, but few, if any show any concern about nurturing it outside of business and industry applications. So what is an educator or parent to do to bring out the imagination in a child?

Since no two families are alike, I can only speak in generalities. As such, I have isolated ten steps to enhance the imagination opportunities in education both in and out of school.


1. Try to break the habit of seeing the use of imagination as only a subject for art or music.

Every article written on imagination and children is about story telling, music or art despite the fact, as Gardner has pointed out, that there are many other significant intelligences that can be encouraged.

One way you can stretch this limited view of imagination it to point out to the youth that everything they use has been invented by someone who has applied his or her imagination to solving a problem. Having a child think about who invented the pocket or the wheel brings about better observation skills and increases the awareness of possibilities.

So the first priority is to provide a child with problems to solve and as this naturally develops it encourages the imagination. Indeed, problem solving is nothing more than applied imagination at work.


2. Make it a point to do things differently.

This could be as simple as asking the child to map out a new way to get to the supermarket to learning how to write with both hands. The true enemy of imagination is acceptance of the status quo.


3. Spend time thinking about how you can make things better.

A man just made a small fortune redesigning the eating fork. He made a wood model of one, watched how people used the fork, and used his imagination to make a better version. It can cut on both sides, fits into the hand better, and has dull tongs to grip pasta better.


4. Observation is the mother of imagination.

A child who is not exposed to new things cannot bring new thinking to a problem. In order for imagination to grow there has to be a silo filled with resources that can stimulate it. When Gardner writes about the types of intelligences he, in essence, is writing about how individuals deal with problems in a particular realm better. The more experiences, the greater the imagination that can be brought to bear on the potential solutions.


5. Don't evaluate imagination.

Don't tell someone it is bad or good. Don't tell them why it will or wouldn't work. Ask them to explain it. Try to crawl into their mindset. The imagination cannot always be judged by those close to it and truly imaginative work can require a long gestation. Outside of asking for an acceptable explanation of the work and having it done in a neat manner, judgment should be left until a later date. That does not mean you can't grade the work, just make sure your rubric doesn't evaluate the imagination applied.


6. Spend considerable time asking questions.

You can call this the Socratic method or you can call it playing the devil's advocate, but any work left unchallenged is a missed opportunity to stretch the imagination of a student. Frequently, I have seen the outside of refrigerator doors covered with good work from children. Yet, not once have I seen an explanation of why it was there other than a positive comment from a teacher or parent. Asking your children why they drew that type of tree might reveal that they really never looked at trees. A little exploration in this area could provoke the child's imagination into drawing a tree that would grow extra thin branches to make it easier to make pencils. Asking questions promotes the imagination because it promotes thinking.


7. Deprive a child of something and let him create a replacement.

Children need to have an identity and frequently that is based on what they can do. "My son the football player," "my daughter the flutist" is all part of that syndrome which extends into life when people frequently ask others what they do for a living. This identity needs to be expanded from what they have done to what they can do.

This is seen in the very young who enjoy playing with the box more than the toy it came in. They apply their imagination to playing with the box and are only deprived of this opportunity when others distract him or her with the store bought merchandise. It does not take long for the child to abandon his or her imagination for that of the individual who invented the latest new toy. The result is a constant demand for new toys rather than new playthings.


8. Don't overly reward imagination because it stymies additional thoughts and potential improvements.

If a student compiles an innovative way to solve a problem accept it as such, but encourage her to continue to improve upon it. For example, a student comes up with an inventive way to draw a map that shows population density. If overly compensated for this effort the student may not have the desire to continue to improve upon it.


9. Actively look for ways to encourage play and experimentation with new ideas.

Keeping an open mind is exceptionally difficult in a world where one-word answers are the key to good test scores. Knowledge is what you already know; imagination is what makes it grow.


10. Encourage the process more than the product.

When I researched and published my work on using the Japanese Quality Circle in the classroom, the element that became most vivid was the fact that if you have a good process the product will always turn out well. If you work on just the product it might turn out okay, but if it does not you won't know where it went bad. Encouraging students to use all their senses makes them more aware of possibilities.

Every student has a set of basic perceptions that reflect what he or she has witnessed. Those with the ability to combine these experiences and create anew require the insights to see how things came to be. Putting it all together, in other words, so that the body and brain are engaged in meaningful learning and embodied in the product.

Imagination is essential to the mental health of a child and society. The creation of alternative solutions moves civilization forward one person at a time. Einstein relished his gift of creativity more than his cognitive abilities. To stimulate students to seek unique perspectives requires teachers and parents to have the ability to understand that they can teach from a multitude of perspectives. This requires both experience and a vast education, both formal and informal. If you lack these traits look outside for ideas, help, and motivation so as not to deprive a student of the joy of looking at a grain of sand and seeing silicon chip.


Conclusion

Play, expanding the rules, putting yourself in the shoes of, what would happen if, is there a better way, and what do you think are all phrases that push a child's imagination and give him or her the strength to overcome obstacles of thought and bring fresh and innovative ideas to benefit all. It should be given at least as much time to develop as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Although it is not easily evaluated or graded, it should nevertheless be a part of every child's education and thus force the politicians and number crunchers to find an imaginative way for them to deal with it. Remember that everything that has been created came from someone's imagination.



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Alan Haskvitz has been selected as one of the best teachers in the United States by six different educational organizations. He has earned over 30 awards for his innovative teaching and has been featured on national radio and television numerous times as well as featured in books on improving education. His students have done extremely well winning major competitions in nearly every curriculum area. Haskvitz has taught at every grade level and every core subject in his nearly 30 years as an educator. He is a working classroom teacher and can be contacted through his website, ReachEveryChild.com



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