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Useful And Fantastic: Applied Imagination - 5

Imagination In Child Development


Children’s pretend play and imaginary companions are more than pastimes. They are the ‘work of the imagination’, work with a purpose. Freud thought that children’s imaginative play was governed by primary process, but observation shows he was mistaken.. Through these ‘as if’ experiences, children become more capable of assessing reality and consequences, and develop capacities for causal and moral judgments. Even very young children can practice anything in play, safely, in an imaginary world that they can control. Their imaginary worlds can also be safe retreats from the cruelties and shocks that they experience in the world that they cannot control.

Adults may disapprove of ‘too much imagination’ because imaginative children can be up to novel and daring mischief. Or adults may feared that a child is withdrawing too far into ‘a world of its own’, perhaps risking going over the edge into the cut-off world of psychiatric disorder. But children may prefer to have vicarious experience, practising mental explorations for use in the future, and seem too inactive in the present. A lively imagination may seem too sensitive, and too quick to apprehend possible dangers and disasters. ‘The coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave man dies but once.’ But the apparent coward may be more able to look ahead to prevent disasters.

Piaget (1959) described the reasoning of young children as ‘concrete’, based on the evidence of their senses more than logic. But adults can be pretty concrete-minded themselves in understanding that children must operate with limited knowledge as premises for their logic. Children are not ‘concrete’ in the way they can use symbols to explore what may be possible, and to express what they do not have the insight or vocabulary to say in adult terms. A really ‘concrete’ mind can only take literally everything that is heard or read, and may indicate some sort of thought disorder or autistic limitation - closer to the limitations of how a computer uses language, for machines indeed operate ‘concretely’, unaware of metaphors.

As children grow up, they can use verbal symbols to play with fantasies and to express feelings, but when this resource is inadequate, adults as well as children can act out their feelings and desires instead. The social consequences can be serious.

Symbolizing abilities appear early, perhaps because young children do not yet have the words or the powers of abstraction to describe what may be concerning them, absorbing their attention, directing their emotions or causing them physical pain. They can use symbols in stories for themselves, held only in their own minds, but they can be available to express themselves.

Working as a clinical child psycologist, I discovered how troubled children could symbolise their experiences in stories that seemed to be waiting ‘at the top of their heads’. I would ask them to ‘draw a picture of anything you like’, followed, after the drawing had started, by ‘and when you have finished, make up a story about it, any story you like’. By talking about their stories with them, children could often be helped with their real problems, while avoiding directly talking about them that could hurt their fragile and sensitive egos. The clues in their stories about changes needed in the children's own environment and adult behaviour could be tested and followed up.

It was important and significant how the children’s stories dealt with their real life experiences. The first story that one disturbed boy told me about his drawing was about the killing of a horrible alien creature from space. From the insight this story gave, we tried to help the boy and his unhappy migrant family. A few weeks later, his story was about a ragged homeless man who found himself a cave to live in. A month later his final story to me was about a class lesson on how people invented agriculture and made villages. His behavior paralleled his stories. Adults, including teachers, have told me that they think his last story was boring and unimaginative, and they preferred the emotional impact of the angst expressed in his first one. But for Drago himself, the possibilities of peace and construction in his third story had opened up practical imagination for his future life.

Imagination about destruction may seem more entertaining – but it is easier and less of a real work of art that imagination about construction.

It is unfortunate that the Language Experience approach in classrooms will backfire when overused. Children are asked to draw a picture and tell their story about it to a teacher who – usually slowly - writes out the sentences for them underneath the picture, or they write it themselves. This requirement of public story-telling can bore or caution children into producing stereotyped sound bites, as short as possible. ‘I went to my nanas and had chips.’ There is a difference between having to tell personal stories in a public classroom, and freedom of choice in a private and confidential situation, with unshared attention.

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