Imagination on demand

Published by Lori Pickert on May 12, 2009 at 12:02 PM

Hope everyone had a lovely Mothers Day! (Including all you mums from outside the U.S.!)

The above photo was taken at the botanical gardens where I enjoyed a lovely day being fêted, as is my due.

An interesting bit from the end of the brief but powerful open thread over the busy weekend:

…I speak of imagination, the neglected stepchild of American education. — Elliot Eisner

“imagination, the neglected stepchild of American education” — Oh, how it pained me to read that sentence! Our country started with such creativity and spark and ingenuity … and to think that we have gotten to a point of being so prosperous and able yet also neglecting our duty to teach our children well … so sad. Yet the quote inspires me…Jen

The problem with imagination and American education isn’t that it is completely ignored — it’s that school thinks they can train it like a domestic animal and bring it out only when they want it, and then make it jump through hoops on command.

You invented your own way of doing this math problem? No, we don’t want that; you’re confusing things. You’re writing a poem today —be creative. You want to use these math materials to make up a game you thought of yourself? I’m sorry, we don’t have time for that. Do the assignment. Remember the book that I chose and told you to read? Well, whether you enjoyed it or not, whether it spoke to you or not, I now want you to make a diorama about it. It’s due on friday; use your imagination.

We know this isn’t how imagination works. It’s not how it works for us, as adults. But we consistently make choices for children that absolutely defy what we know about ourselves. … — Me



Comment by Sarah Jackson on May 12, 2009 at 02:01 PM

I was just reading this exact quote from you aloud to Jeff out of the open thread comments.

This after Gunnar started listing his day - "boring, math, reading - sometimes boring, social studies - boring, science - usually boring, specials - mostly boring except art, lunch - usually fun, then finish up with boring." Wow. And he wants to not go to San Diego for 3 days for all that?

The idea of imagination being placed in small boxes really resonates with me - it's what is ultimately wrong with the school my son goes to. They pay lip service to creativity and imagination, but really they just want to pull it out on demand for that diorama or that display board or the art show so their imagination can be put on display. Meanwhile, the act of pinning that butterfly to the board (can't resist the metaphor) kills it so that we can admire its beauty, but not watch the glory of it flying away to places unknown.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 12, 2009 at 02:43 PM

good metaphor!

this on-demand imagination/creativity is so comical to me because — hello — we *know* it doesn’t work that way! and yet, so many of the problems we have in education are commonsense ones like this.

the bulk of how we educate children trains them to keep their imagination in check or turn it off altogether; we can’t do that and then expect them to be able to crank the faucet and produce it at will. use it or lose it.

homeschooling parents can struggle with the same thing. they want their children to be creative and imaginative but … wait … not right *now* … hold on … let’s get through this assignment…

so the question is — how to create a curriculum or a way of learning in which imagination and creativity (all the good right-brain stuff) are regularly exercised and used daily — *and* how to accept that to encourage creativity and imagination you have to accept it all the time, not just when you want it.

anyone who has given their child the freedom to make decisions about their own learning knows how difficult it is to wrest back control; once a child has tasted that freedom, they want to keep it. if you allow a child to exercise their imagination and you encourage them to develop their will … they will become a force to be reckoned with.

Comment by estea on May 12, 2009 at 05:23 PM


i just forwarded this to 3 people.

gosh, sister, you should write a book.


Comment by Amy on May 12, 2009 at 06:22 PM

I am currently reading _Young at Art_ by Susan Striker and she is ruthless when it comes to everything adults can (and do) do to destroy children's natural love of art. Even in art, which ought to be where imagination runs free, schools (and many non-school-affiliated adults) try to control the child, rein it in, make it neat and clean. Early on she skewers so-called art classes that consist of nothing more than pasting pre-decided paper shapes onto another piece of paper to make whatever the teacher has decided the project is. In that one sentence she neatly described all the "art" I got in elementary school. In other words, none. And that was 25+ years ago. My favorite art project in elementary school? We had a pumpkin decorating contest in fourth grade--this was a one-shot type thing, something the classroom teacher decided to do and not part of "art." All sorts of materials were at our disposal--I made a gypsy-type pumpkin and got first prize. But what I remember more is the utter joy of all those materials to play with and touch and manipulate as we wanted to. Our imaginations were our only guide. I remember the utter joy of it, along with the teacher's disapproving look as a friend and I got a little too, I assume, carried away. Be imaginative, but, you know, quieter. And less messy. Sigh.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 12, 2009 at 07:38 PM

estea, you are *too* kind. :^)

oh, amy. re: school art … of course there are wonderful teachers and programs (my usual caveat!) — for instance one of my best friends is a wonderful art teacher in a public school. but gahhhhhh there are so many instances of bad art teachers and programs. the cookie-cutter art. bleah!

re: those pasting pre-cut-out shape projects … i still remember making my abraham lincoln in second grade that way … with my teacher telling us all “now find your big black rectangle, class! the BIG rectangle — no, billy, the BLACK piece — this is lincoln’s HAT — now…”

my sister is still scarred by the kindergarten teacher who ruthlessly taught her and the rest of her class how to draw stick people — the *right* way to draw stick people (and people could be drawn no other way) — with girl stick people having triangles for skirts.

“Be imaginative, but, you know, quieter. And less messy.” and only when we tell you, and only as much as we say, for as long as we say.

Comment by Cathy T on May 12, 2009 at 08:29 PM

My older kids went to Glass Geometry Camp in NH for a week and while they were there they learned geometry while making stained glass "stuff." My 13 year old came home with the coolest clock that had three faces. And my 15 year old made a clamshell jewelry box. But while it is great what they made, it is the creativity that I loved - them coming up with their own designs and the camp "leaders" giving them the tools and confidence to do what they wanted.

My youngest son has been extremely bored since he got back and we've had lots of discussion related to learning and boredom. He has now asked me to find a place where he can continue to take stained glass classes and he has also decided he wants to learn how to whittle. I'm hopeful that these two creative outlets will give him what he needs. He is also exploring a computer program? called Blender to make 3D objects; I'm not sure what this will give him for his future, but he knows more about the program than his programmer dad and that in itself is nice!

I've been stewing about the Open Forum all weekend... I love to think about it all.

Amy, I know you are from MA and I'd love to meet you and your family. We live near Worcester - maybe we can meet up sometime? My kids are 2, 4, 13, and 15. If you are interested, please ask Lori to give you my email address (if you don't mind being the matchmaker.... "Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match. Find me a find; catch me a catch!")

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 12, 2009 at 10:59 PM

cathy, i stew about it, too! we are fellow stewers.

Comment by Linnea on May 13, 2009 at 04:34 AM

Wow! Add me to the stewing. This is something that I think about a lot at night. I teach at a public charter school and I struggle with this a lot. A LOT. It is so difficult to encourage true use of imagination. I am reading (and we are working through) various improv. theatre games from Michael Rohd's Hope is Vital book. I am liking it because it seems to be a way to fast track deprogramming children who are not often encouraged to cultivate their own creativity. Thank you for these thoughts.

Comment by Angela on May 13, 2009 at 11:15 AM

Oh I love this! I truly do! Do you mind exchanging links? I might use some of your tips for my own projects... and vice versa why not?
x love x

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 13, 2009 at 01:27 PM

linnea, what age children do you work with? i’m very interested in what you’re doing; we also had several theatre classes and experimented with improv. theatre is one of those things you can introduce and then let the children take over.

i’m curious — do you work with them in small groups? do they have a chance to choose/assign responsibilities?

hi, angela, and thank you!

Comment by Karen on May 14, 2009 at 01:59 AM

What a great thread this is... I think we homeschoolers must have creativity (and the lack of it in schools) on the brain right now. Here is a related post I wrote a few days ago:
Thanks for the great food for thought -

Comment by Theresa on May 14, 2009 at 03:46 AM

I guess this is why I have come to dislike cut and paste craft projects, never really got into lapbooks, and left notebooking behind a few years ago. "Be creative within this certain space with this specific content" types of projects just make me nuts.My son just flat out refuses to do them any more (I have created a "force", haven't I?) and I have to agree with him. I see him at his most creative at some very unexpected times, not on my or anyone else's schedule.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 14, 2009 at 02:36 PM

thank you, karen!

theresa, yes, exactly. to me, there is an insidious need for imposing control that many adults have .. they want to frame the experience and anticipate the results. but that is not at all necessary for learning. if they can just give up their need to control the situation and be open to seeing where their child takes it, they might realize their ideas actually inhibit creativity, imagination, and learning.

Comment by Sarah Jackson on May 14, 2009 at 04:17 PM

I had to poke in and say that creativity and imagination do pop up if you just let it happen. We're on a spur of the moment vacation in San Diego (thank you work conferences for the hubby). We went to the beach yesterday with the dogs and with absolutely no tools for sand play. They played with just their hands and minds yesterday for 3 hours, building elaborate castles, learning to body surf the waves, running with the dogs. I had to drag their shivering, sandy selves off the beach at dinner time while they pronounced that we would be spending ALL DAY there today. No begging for things or entertainment - just being in the moment. So so great.

Today I will remember the telephoto lens for the camera, food and water, and a longer book.

Comment by Linnea on May 14, 2009 at 04:33 PM

Hi Lori,

I don’t know how to make this a short response, and I want to say that I am a public school teacher with some freedom to experiment, but I am just learning too! First, I have been heavily influenced of a program in Chicago called APTP ( Someday, I hope to build a program such as that one. But for today, I teach middle school reading (10-12 year olds) to four sections at a charter school in Philadelphia (urban, traditional, with lots of students from rough backgrounds).

We have noticed this year especially, that across the board, our students are severely lacking in problem thinking skills and have unlearned what it means to be imaginative. The moment we try to let them experiment or work through a problem that requires creativity and/or critical thinking, they completely melt. Oh it makes me sad. Because of this, we made a lot of changes to our schedule and now I have a big extra block of time with my homeroom. (That’s the background of where this all stemmed from.) While I have many students who would certainly benefit from extra time spent working basic reading and math skills, I went with my gut and decided to try theatre improve. exercises (we call them games) to build up critical thinking/problem solving skills and also provide a creative outlet that requires no materials or supplies.

For my class (of 25 students) we started with games that could be played whole class. Then, we started breaking into small groups, once we all had a sense of the ground rules and expectations. The book that I started with (Hope is Vital) gives ideas for age-appropriateness and the games build in challenge level as well as intimacy. The real-life issues and problems coming out of this project are amazing. They share things through acting it out that they would never have shared before and there is a whole new sense of community. On some days, groups get to work through games we have already learned. They select someone to be the facilitator and I circle around to the various groups. On other days, we learn new games or reflect on what we have done. I *try* to let the groups be as free as possible, within the confines of our space and time. But I tell you truly, I am learning so much through this. Sometimes, as a teacher of students who lack basic skills, it is easy to be so focused on what students “need” that I completely forget what it means to be children and how much they NEED to be just that.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 14, 2009 at 05:40 PM

sarah, absolutely — but if you had had your own agenda and timetable, and you would have been intent on sticking to them, then they couldn’t have let their creative, imaginative play run free!

enjoy your vacation — sounds wonderful! :^)

linnea, thank you so much for sharing more details of your work! i have no doubt that making this time and space for them will pay dividends with their basic skills as well as strengthening their imagination, collaboration, and problem-solving. fantastic!

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