The other week, as I sat on the couch browsing Netflix, my five-year-old nephew placed colorful building blocks on the coffee table where I rested my feet. I asked him what he was building, and he said “a concert and a school.” After I praised his industrious architecture and asked what he planned to build next, I could see the creative gears spinning behind his eyes, ‘What am I going to build next?’ (Spoiler alert—he moved on to playing his plastic blue guitar.)
While listening to his boisterous, haphazard melodies, I continued scanning Netflix for something interesting and eventually stumbled upon ABC Studios’ fantasy drama series Once Upon a Time. Over the span of seven seasons, the show follows the stories of several fairy-tale characters who were transported to the real world and robbed of their original memories after being cursed by an evil queen. I can only imagine the amount of creativity and imagination that went into creating such a show where familiar characters are strategically tossed into completely unfamiliar settings and stories. I’d love to be a fly on the wall (or active contributor!) in that writers’ room.
Given that February 26th marks National Tell a Fairy Tale Day, I’d say binging on Once Upon a Time or any other fairy-tale-based form of entertainment is a solid way to celebrate the unofficial holiday in your free time. It’s also a good time to remember the value of incorporating storytelling and imagination into learning so students’ creativity is awoken and encouraged at a young age. Without imagination, would spoken word have ever been constructed into stories, fairy tales, and folklore? And would those stories have been written down in novels or illustrated in picture books? Would they have been transformed into TV shows and movies? Video games? Virtual reality? Although there are many elements that go into creating these intricate worlds, imagination plays a vital role in sparking and nurturing that innovation and creation.
For starters, why exactly is imagination so important?
The most basic explanation is that imagination teaches students to think outside the box. A healthy imagination helps students see something for what it can be, not just for what it is at face value.
In a 1931 book, he expanded on this, saying that imagination is a real factor in scientific research because it stimulates progress and gives birth to an evolution. Additionally, it’s believed that Einstein once told a mother whose son was an aspiring scientist to give him more fairy tales to read. When she questioned this idea, Einstein told her that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to building a creative imagination, which, in turn, is the “essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist.”
To reiterate Einstein’s point, knowledge is limited to facts, practicality, and reality, whereas imagination revolves around exploration and the forming of new ideas, images, or concepts. It’s about taking a fact or notion and imagining where you can go from there. This then triggers the cycle of collecting more knowledge.
Among many driving factors, imagination has been behind questions like:
- In what other ways can I solve this problem?
- How can I more quickly get from point A to point B?
- How can we better manage and treat newly discovered diseases?
- What can I bring to this true story to make it interesting enough to read or watch?
- How will these ingredients taste together?
Imagination changes and grows as knowledge grows, and sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone and think creatively to find the answer. And sometimes it takes a lot of trial and error—just like the scientific research Einstein was talking about. This cycle of discovery and learning is exactly what we should strive for in education.
How can I start incorporating imagination into learning?
While the actual teaching of imagination isn’t doable—because it’s something that has to come from within someone—it is certainly possible to encourage and nurture imagination in the classroom.
It’s no secret that children learn by example, so modeling imagination is a great way to encourage it. If you’re in the middle of a lesson and a fleeting thought comes to you, share it with your students. Allowing them to see your curiosity will let them know it’s okay to explore their own. And when students have questions for you, it’s okay to let them know if you don’t know the answer. This helps them understand that investigation is important and necessary, and that sometimes not every question has an answer.
When it comes to assignments, here’s just a handful of suggestions for incorporating imagination into learning, especially with young students:
- Stream-of-thought journal writing: Give your students one to five minutes of constant writing, telling them to simply write whatever thoughts come to their mind. Sometimes great stories and realizations can come out of this practice.
- Taking a new perspective on a classic fairy tale/story: Whether the final assignment is delivered through writing, drawing, or acting, assign different fairy tales or classic stories to different groups of students and instruct them to either expand the story, tell it from a different character’s perspective, or create a whole new character.
- Discussion time with lots of questions: During lessons and lectures, always encourage students to ask questions. (And never dismiss a student’s question!) When possible, allow their questions to take the lesson off track a bit so you can have a genuine, thorough discussion to explore their thoughts.
- Thought-provoking creative writing prompts: Elicit creative responses by asking open-ended, thought-provoking questions or giving an idea to start a story. Examples range from planting an idea (Write a story or scene about two characters from very different backgrounds sharing a meal together. What do they learn about each other that they weren’t expecting?) to asking stream-of-thought questions (Quickly answer: Who is Ethan? Why is he crying? What is he going to do about it?)
- Finding new solutions or workarounds: Give your students one way to solve a math or science problem, and tell them to find a new way to solve it, including an explanation of how they got there.
- City-building or entrepreneurship: Instruct your students to build a city, whether it’s physically with paper and glue, or digitally. Or, instruct them to develop their own business from start to finish: business plan, funding, etc. (These assignments are great for middle and high school students.)
- Most importantly, never stop asking, “And then what?”
Here are six other ways you can celebrate National Tell a Fairy Tale Day with your students and encourage their creativity and imagination.
Incorporating imagination into learning is so important to our future because it means today’s students will develop new ways of communicating with one another, treating diseases, traveling the world, and building our cities. (And, of course, they’ll also create new TV shows!) As the second episode of Once Upon a Time came to a close, my nephew and eight-year-old niece appropriately began playing Snow White with a couple of very rotund teddy bears as the dwarves. My nephew gave his best attempt to whistle while they worked. Imagination encircles our world, so let’s do our duty to encourage and incorporate it at every opportunity we can.
Albert Einstein. (2018, February 7). Wikiquote. Retrieved from https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein
Creative Writing Prompts. Writer’s Digest. Retrieved http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts
Crockett, R. (2017, November 21). A list of creative writing prompts to make your students love writing. Global Digital Citizen Foundation. Retrieved from https://globaldigitalcitizen.org/creative-writing-prompts-secondary-students
Fun holiday – tell a fairy tale day. Timeanddate.com. Retrieved from https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/fun/tell-a-fairy-tale-day
Vannest, A. (2015, February 25). 6 ways to celebrate tell a fairy tale day. Grammarly Blog. Retrieved from https://www.grammarly.com/blog/6-ways-to-celebrate-tell-a-fairy-tale-day/
Viereck, G. S. (1929, October 26). What life means to Einstein. The Saturday Night Post. Retrieved from http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/wp-content/uploads/satevepost/what_life_means_to_einstein.pdf
Watanabe-Crockett, L. (2016, November 10). Why is imagination as important as knowledge in education? Global Digital Citizen Foundation. Retrieved from https://globaldigitalcitizen.org/imagination-important-knowledge-education