How do we bring back imagination in our schools?
Monday, February 26, 2018
My wife Erica and I made a startling revelation one recent Saturday afternoon about our five children and a decline in their ability to engage in imaginary play. We often have what we refer to in our house as "no technology Saturdays" in our attempt to get our children away from the screens that seem to dominate their weekdays — particularly as a result of their schoolwork.
As we sat in the kitchen, we watched our 3-year-old Zoey playing on the living room floor with her dolls and dollhouse, deeply engaged in imaginative play. The next oldest, 5-year-old Owen, would play with Zoey off and on, but was always looking for us to prompt him to re-engage in play with his sister.
Our older boys Liam, Cameron and Brady, ages 8, 10 and 12, were struggling to reach consensus on what activity to do. Once they agreed upon something, they were having a difficult time engaging in it without several prompts from my wife and I about what they should do (they were trying to make a skit that they could perform later).
At that moment, Erica looked at me and asked, "When did our boys lose their ability to use their imagination, and how do we keep that from happening to Zoey?" She raised an interesting point.
Perhaps our situation is unique, but I have to guess that other parents probably see a similar trend: Many children seem to lose their ability to use their imagination as they get older. This is not a new debate, and it may have a scientific explanation.
In 2016, this Forbes article explained why our brains become less creative as we get older. Computational neuroscientist Paul King, who responded to a similar question on Quora, explained that this trend exists partially because adults over time have become "good at life," adapting to their surroundings and developing habits of thought that help them navigate and make sense of their world in predictable ways. As a result, we become set in our ways, beliefs and thoughts over time.
The exception to the rule, of course, is adults who work in creative professions and as a result have learned to maintain their ability to be imaginative and creative.
"People who are in creative professions develop personal systems to stay creative," King writes. "They develop predictable habits that take them into unpredictable territory. This is a lifestyle choice to stay in the uncomfortable territory of the unknown. They may seek out people outside their profession, read random things, or force themselves to brainstorm whimsically."
King's analysis of this situation makes me wonder as a parent how I can foster imagination and creativity in my own children. This same question extends to my professional life as a high school principal, thinking of my students.
Earlier this month, Mind/Shift's Linda Flanagan addressed this topic in an article entitled "8 Ways to Help Older Kids Develop a Sense of Imagination." Flanagan writes, "Imaginative play comes naturally to children, but it's a habit of mind that needs to be taught and reinforced throughout life."
She goes on to state that "imagination might be vital to a clear mind, but it's not something that's widely taught or understood, especially among older students. In a 2007 study of prospective teachers, 68 percent said they believed students needed to focus on memorizing the right answer rather than thinking imaginatively."
Flanagan went on to quote researcher Wendy Ostroff, author of "Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms," who suggests that schools are organized in a way to stunt the growth of imagination. Teachers often lack the flexibility and time, and instead are focused on canned curriculums and predetermined learning targets and outcomes.
To combat that, Flanagan offered these eight tips that educators could use to foster imagination in students:
- Give students more control.
- Have students track their Google searches.
- Tell collaborative stories.
- Try improv.
- Introduce real-life experiences whenever possible.
- Encourage doodling.
- Imagine a classroom "creative council."
- Lighten up.
To enhance this, what could parents do at home to foster imagination and creativity in their children? In this article, Parenting Magazine offers parents these tips: tell stories, make art, use natural or generic materials, and foster a sense of inner space. The article goes on to list a number of activities that can help parents achieve this.
Perhaps my wife Erica and I can give some of these a try this weekend when we have another "no technology Saturday" in our home with our children.
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