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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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,