Our imagination can be both wonderful and scary. I’m not sure how good mine is on the ‘wonderful’ side, but I definitely blame the ‘scary’ side for my inability to watch the news. My eldest appears to be wired similarly – he’s prone to nightmares from the merest suggestion of something unpleasant (even impacted by his lesson on the first world war at school).
In general, I think people view imagination a bit like a sense of humour. We all like to think we have got a good one, but we don’t consciously learn it – it’s just something we pick up by osmosis.
But does it matter where we are on the imagination-spectrum? When I think of people with good imaginations, I think of qualities such as ‘interesting’, ‘creative’ and ‘captivating’ (my father-in-law tells legendary stories about the naughty zookeeper and the three monkeys – Cuthburt, Horace and Peter). Moreover, it just sounds so appealing to be described as such.
I also have this hunch that it’s a useful life skill – that a good imagination is the basis of creativity, innovation and problem-solving. Drifting off to the recesses of your mind during a long car journey or stint in a doctor’s waiting room can also be a handy distraction. In contrast, when I think hypothetically of those not similarly blessed, I think of a grey world. However, nothing operates in such extremes.
So if it’s a useful thing to have, to what extent is it cultivated by parents, nurseries and schools? I certainly remember hearing about the importance of role play at my sons’ nursery and about getting the balance right between teacher and child-led activities. But what happens once play is replaced by times tables? My Dad recently made the observation that children may start out with a rich imagination but as they grow up, their focus becomes narrower (getting funneled into GSCEs, A-levels and sometimes down to just one subject at University). As they progress through school, we need to emphasise activities where children have to think for themselves if we’re going to end up with independent thinkers. After all, we all know the saying “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”…
But the challenge for my eldest when he was younger was that he needed something to get him kick-started. To use that cringe-worthy metaphor: seeds need water to grow. Give him a blank sheet of paper and well, you’d end up with a blank sheet of paper. Either that or being asked “what shall I draw?”. I think he needed a bit of confidence just to let his mind run away with itself.
My second child is the complete contrast: a creative soul whose drawings are a stream of consciousness; whose desire to transform himself into all manner of characters knows no bounds. Whilst his drawings still need a fair bit of interpretation, his mind is brimming with ideas he wants to share.
Whilst there’s clearly a difference in predisposition, some of it is due to me. I was a classic helicopter parent with my first-born. I didn’t let him get frustrated, or figure things out for himself (at the time, it just seemed cruel when I knew I could help him). In retrospect I can see these struggles are an opportunity for kids to develop their independent thinking. They can practice trying to solve problems and build both their self-efficacy and appetite for it in the process.
Unsurprisingly, with only two years apart, my second son has had the ‘benefit’ of more space. At the time, I used to beat myself up at not giving him the same VIP experience as my first, but now I’m starting to see the advantages. Who knows how much is nature and how much is nurture, but either way, I love seeing their imaginations develop and watching my youngest have a positive effect on his older brother. Age is but a number and all that. As time’s gone on, we’ve ended up talking quite a bit about imagination at home – openly blaming my eldest’s ‘good imagination’ for his nightmares and in giving praise for creative ideas and home-designed Lego constructions. My belief is that if I tell them they have good imaginations, I’ll be tapping into the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’ll see.
At the same time, as my youngest seems to have been given a fast-track pass to Bing Bong’s world in ‘Inside Out’, he’s providing the stimulus for my eldest’s imagination. With his uninhibited younger brother in tow, my eldest is letting himself go bit-by-bit. I love hearing their phoney American accents as they act out a make-believe story in their dens and when they bring their Lego men to life.
In fact, you could say building their imagination is a lot like the Lego Movie: it’s about becoming a Master Builder and learning to build off-plan. To go their own way and write their own story.