Ideas to Improve Imaginations

It seems some pupils have more creative imaginations than others, but the importance in fostering an imaginative mind is crucial for developing minds – and schools are the best place to help children to actively develop inventiveness.

As we often find during UKEdChat sessions, colleagues in the Early Years have got this boxed off, offering space and opportunities to help foster imaginations, with playful situations usually at the core. Sadly, these opportunities become scarcer as children grow with curriculum demands and teaching philosophies battle; teachers hearing themselves saying to pupils, “Use your imagination” when writing a story, or creating an artistic masterpiece. We covered this issue in an earlier UKEdChat session, click here to read the summary.

But when we ask pupils to use their imaginations, what exactly goes on inside the brain? Try this exercise suggested by Jane Porter, in her posting on Fast Company:

Close your eyes and imagine a bowl of fruit. This is pretty simple. You might see some apples and oranges, bananas, maybe a bunch of grapes. Probably, you’ve seen enough bowls of fruit in your life to call a stored-up image to mind with little effort.Now close your eyes and imagine these pieces of fruit could talk. What would they say to each other? Not so easy, right? Talking fruit isn’t something we encounter much in life. That means you’ll need to use your perception–what you know about the way different fruits look and taste–and fill in the parts you don’t know. That’s where imagination comes in.When you call to mind something you’ve never actually seen, it’s a lot easier to think creatively than if you try imagining something that’s familiar to you. That’s because the brain can’t rely on connections that have been shaped by past experience.

What does this mean for teaching, and creativity? Writing on his blog, Gregory Berns points out, “In order to think creatively, you must develop new neural pathways and break out of the cycle of experience-dependent categorization. As Mark Twain said, “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” For most people, this does not come naturally. Often, the harder you try to think differently, the more rigid the categories become.

Here are some ideas to allow pupils to actively use their imaginations which can be used in schools. Adapt accordingly:

  1. Read stories to pupils. Even the best readers will enjoy having a story read to them. This creates images in the mind – so read something that will be new to them. Charlotte’s Web is a great example of a story that conjured up pictures in children’s minds – the movie production blew many of those images away, so leave them with the pictures in their imaginations.
  2. Construction toys. At any level get pupils to construct something using play dough, Lego, or any other malleable materials to express or develop imaginations. This form of play does not need to be kept in the early years of schooling as teenagers still have developing minds and imaginations, so let them be children once again – they will enjoy it, despite the early protestations.
  3. Open ended activities. Give young children a large empty cardboard box, and they will use their imaginations to turn it into something (a car, a house, a den and so on), so support this creativity and imagination by given pupils a blank canvas to use their imaginations with. We are obsessed with Lesson Objectives and outcomes – make the outcome of a session to allow pupils to use their imaginations with an open-ended activity – where there is no wrong or right.
  4. Model Imagination. Some children need support with their imaginations. Perhaps support is the wrong word – they need permission to use their imagination, so expose your imagination to them. Not all people are extroverts, and introverts may need to feel comfortable to use their imaginations openly, publicly; so show that expressing your imagination / creativity can be a constructive activity.
  5. Don’t Demand Imagination. Putting children on the spot – telling them to use their imagination – can have the counter effect. The brain has to be in the right frame of mind, so create a relaxed atmosphere where children can use their imaginations freely and honestly. Putting pressure on the use of imagination will hit a brick wall of creativity – sometimes our minds need the freedom to explore the connections and come up with an idea.
  6. MindMaps. Mindmaps are a great visual stimulus to encourage imagination and creativity, being well suited for older pupils. Mindmaps are a form of imagination play, developing strands and ideas that encourage imaginative thinking.
  7. Offer experiences. Visit a museum; visit an art gallery; look at photographs; go to the theatre. Let minds minds wander and you might be surprised what it turns up.
  8. Liar liar. This activity is a great way to see how imaginative students can be. Give them a prop to wear (such as a scarf, or a cap) with the rule being that when they wear the item they must not tell the truth. This goes against everything children have been told, with some struggling with the permission to be ‘creative with the truth’. Once the prop is removed, they must be their honest self again. Whilst wearing the prop, ask questions like: “How did you get to school this morning?”; “Where did you go at the weekend?”; “Tell me about your family”; “Tell me about all the different pets you own”; “Are you a boy, or a girl? What’s the best thing about being a boy/girl?”; and so on. Give time for answers. Some children will need to develop their confidence with this, but this activity will allow imaginative answers being a good stimulis for fictional writing activities.
  9. But…! Whilst on the subject of writing the word ‘but’ can be a great challenge for developing imaginative ideas. At the end of writing a sentence, challenge pupils to add the word ‘but’ to develop their ideas, taking their stories off in a surprising direction which they probably did not predict.
  10. Do nothing. Sometimes imagination needs no stimulus, and doing nothing allows time and quiet for imaginations to flow. In a noisy world, these opportunities are rare, so allow opportunities that encourage this. You may also benefit from these rare moments. Enjoy them.

You will have seen, there is a strong collection between imagination and creativity. We did not want to get bogged down with the neuro-science behind how imagination works (click on the links above if you want to read further about this), but the need to encourage imaginations should not be left behind in Early Years settings. Allow time and space for imaginations to flourish is a tough demand within modern schools, but the importance of finding time is crucial, being something which all educators can play a part in.


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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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