When I go home, I’m no longer a dad. I transform into a sidekick to the world’s coolest superhero. I become a nurse to a stuffed animal surgeon. I get to help an architect and a builder in forts made from couch cushions. I become second in command on a pirate ship made of the swing set. I morph into a lab assistant to an always-curious scientist. I turn into an astronaut in a planet in our backyard.
That’s the power of imagination.
It’s an escape, yes, but it’s a different kind of escape. It’s not an escape from reality. It’s an escape back to reality. It’s a chance to recover what is lost when I defined myself in narrow terms. I didn’t realize that this would be a side effect of being a dad. But it is. I’m more consumed by wonder. I’m more curious. I’m more likely to answer questions that fascinate me even if they aren’t “practical.” For the last ten years, I have found myself falling in love with subjects I had become convinced that I “didn’t like.”
I want my kids to retain this sense of wonder. I want them to remain imaginative. I want them to follow curiosity and see where it leads. I want them to design and build and create and invent. I want them to play with ideas.
I realize that imagination changes over time. But it shouldn’t be something that shrinks or diminishes. It should be something that expands and evolves. Maybe it gets more realistic. Maybe it grows more rooted in reality. But the imagination should always remain.
Seven Ways to Put Imagination Back into Schools
Schools do many things well and I’m grateful for the amazing things that happen each day. However, the system as a whole often works against imagination. I’ve seen schools cut recess time and turn kindergarten into a high-stakes environment. I’ve seen districts cut the arts and theater programs.
So, here are a few thoughts on how we could put imagination back into schools:
- Play more. Imagination thrives when kids can have the mental and physical space to engage in world-building. It’s not a secondary thing. It’s not a privilege that kids should lose if they don’t turn in all their work. It’s vital — not just for younger kids but for all ages.
- Provide the right structures. Structure gets a bad wrap. But the truth is that a “free time 100%” approach sometimes stifles imagination while the right kind of creative constraints can actually push students to be more imaginative in their problem-solving. When teachers use design thinking, they can offer a structure where imagination thrives.
- Begin with student inquiry. Let them answer their own questions. Let them geek out on things they find fascinating. Imagination isn’t simply “thinking up something new.” It is often the result of chasing questions that they find fascinating.
- Embrace the impractical. People are quick to say, “when will they use this in the real world?” But this incessant focus on treating content as a commodity used for practical gain can stifle imagination. Kids need a chance to wade through the fantastical.
- Allow boredom to occur. This might seem counterintuitive but boredom is actually a critical component to creative thinking. Research has demonstrated that boredom can actually increase divergent thinking. I’m not sure entirely sure what this means for schools, but I wonder if maybe it has to do with the pace of school and the constant drive to be entertaining.
- Change the assessment policies. It’s no secret that high stakes multiple choice tests don’t honor imagination. But it goes beyond the test. As long as we tie teacher evaluations, student placement, and school ratings to these tests, imagination will remain a “fluff” idea.
- Reward risk-taking. At some point, kids become afraid to take creative risks. The system often pushes for compliance and “doing things the right way.” This compliance pushes away imagination as kids buy into the idea that they have to do things a certain way at all times.
Ultimately, the greatest factor is the role of creative teachers. When a teacher transforms the classroom space into a bastion of creativity and wonder, students remain curious. They keep their imagination. And the results are powerful.
Try Out the Wonder Day Project!
If you’re interested in the Wonder Day and Wonder Week Project, sign up below:
Please leave your email address below and click the yellow subscribe button to receive the free inquiry-based Wonder Day / Wonder Week project. It includes the process and the handout you can use with students. I will also send you a weekly email with free, members-only access to my latest blog posts, videos, podcasts and resources to help you boost creativity and spark innovation in your classroom.