It’s hard to imagine a world without imagination. After all, it’s the cornerstone of creativity and innovation.
Some experts say that imagination is the ability to come up with new ideas and solutions, allowing us to see things in a different light.
But, what exactly is imagination, and why is it so important?
Dr. Maria Shaheen
Senior Director of Early Childhood Education, Primrose Schools®
Imaginative thinking and play influence early childhood development
Imaginative thinking and play are imperative for children because it requires elevated thinking and is a driver for early childhood development.
In fact, it’s hard to overstate the benefits of imaginative play for children. Research shows that pretend play is linked to creativity, stronger problem-solving skills, and the development of symbolic thought (when an object can stand in for something else).
During playtime, there are frequent elements of sadness, anger, or frustration; we see young children practice different responses to real-life scenarios.
What is imaginative play?
Imaginative play is more than simply “fun” for children—it helps them make sense of their world and helps children learn how to manage big emotions and complex situations.
Some researchers suggest that play is an opportunity to “try out” future roles (e.g., doctor, mother, father, teacher), role play problem-solving scenarios (how can we reach that high object?), and experiment with social situations.
For example, a simple role-playing game of “restaurant” can require a lot of thinking ahead, in-depth conversations and negotiations, goal setting, and conflict resolution.
- Who’s going to be the cook?
- Who’s going to be the server?
- What should we use for food?
- What if our customer doesn’t like their pizza?
During play, children replay social “scripts” they have experienced by watching the adults and other children in their lives.
In addition to incorporating these familiar scripts, children also try out
new ones as they watch their peers engage in imaginative play (or if the script they are currently using with friends was not received well.)
They learn social cues by watching their peers at play.
Additionally, when parents observe their child’s imaginative play, they can help children explore new, more productive ways to handle big emotions or social situations at later points throughout the day.
In all, play is about self-expression.
Young children represent things that concern them or concepts they are trying to better understand through play well before they can fully verbalize their complete thoughts.
For example, you might notice them reminding their stuffed toy to use their walking feet. How many of us parents, have witnessed our children replaying scenarios they just experienced with their dolls, dinosaurs, or other toys?
Further, the thinking inherent to imaginative play is exactly what educators try to revive in older students in high school and college.
Think of a shoe — If you show it to a young child and ask them to come up with things it could be (a flowerpot, a toy car, a shovel, etc.), the child will come up with more than five times the suggestions an adult can.
If we encourage children from a young age to come up with new and creative solutions, as we do in our approach, we won’t struggle to re-create that creative, divergent thinking that is so desired in teenagers and young adults.
Young children already think like inventors and engineers. We should encourage imaginative play in children.
Here are some practices to encourage imaginative play:
Read to your child often
Children develop creativity and imagination through their experiences. The more read-alouds they hear, the more material they have for future play sessions.
After all, there are limitless ways the main character (or a different character) can “save the day,” and each time your child hears a new solution, you may notice that solution showing up in their play scenarios.
Play with your child
Enter their world and engage in their play scenarios. This gives you a window into their thinking. Use vivid language and model new vocabulary.
Just be sure to follow your child’s lead and not take over their play scenario.
Provide an environment conducive to imaginative play
Loose parts, recycled materials, craft materials, and toys that can be used in a wide range of ways provide more impetus for imaginative play.
Turn off televisions and mobile devices, introduce some loose parts and watch the imagination begin.
Play dates are a wonderful way to help your child engage in more imaginative play.
Invite friends over, meet at the park, or take a hike in the woods, so that your child has many experiences playing with a wide range of peers. Bring some loose parts or open-ended toys to increase the imaginative possibilities.
For example, bring a few action figures or dolls, string, tubes, tape, and scissors—the children might make parachutes, slides, spaceships, or even an invention. The more play scenarios they are introduced to, the broader their own creativity and imagination will be.
Often, parents are surprised at the vocabulary children display during make-believe. When else do you hear a 3-year-old say ‘menu’?
Benefits of imaginative play include:
- As shared earlier, play helps young children take the complexities that exist in their world and explore these in new ways. For the child who is afraid of the monster under their bed, their play scenarios might revolve around the many ways they are able to defeat “monsters.”
- A chance to play-act emotions and appropriate responses is important to the early development of empathy.
- Impulse Control: Children who are adept at fantasy and imaginative play are more able to sustain impulse control than those who do not because they have a wide range of rich play scenarios (the children with rich play skills have limitless things to occupy their mind while they wait).
Kimberly Parish Davis
Author and Editor | CEO, Madville Publishing
Imagination drives progress
Take the detailed mechanical drawings of Leonardo DaVinci. We assume they came from his imagination.
But I like the ability of imagination to build on ideas into infinity, as author Mike Hilbig would say, like fractals, so let me switch on my fiction-writing imagination to wonder about those drawings that inspired generation after generation of inventors who eventually created machines that flew the way Leonardo imagined they would.
I imagine Leonardo as a time traveler or maybe some higher being who has deigned to incarnate among us to stir some new ideas.
Perhaps he was someone who actually saw a helicopter and drew it from memory. Those drawings could be seen as having had a huge influence on aviation. Or what if some deity sent Leonardo visions, recognizing that he could really draw the things he saw in his head.
In my imaginary meta version of the story, Leonardo may not even realize the visions in his head come from outside himself.
The true gift of the storyteller
Imagination is the stuff that connects impossible dots and makes dreams come true.
It is Shakespeare writing plays that speak to archetypes Joseph Campbell hadn’t yet explained to us. It is Frank McCourt telling stories replete with fully remembered conversations between his parents when he was only a toddler.
And we, his enrapt readers, suspend disbelief every time.
It’s the true gift of the storyteller to make imagined realities real for an audience. Imagination allows the wise to discuss difficult subjects and to call attention to social problems obliquely and entertainingly.
Related: How to Get Better at Storytelling?
To write sympathetic characters struggling against inequities that are similar to our own but perhaps different enough to appeal to the people who need to read, hear, or see the messages their stories carry.
Imagination is the inspiration that brings hope
And there is television. For those who don’t read, and many don’t anymore, Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek demonstrate the amazing ability of one man’s vision to invade, infect, and inspire the minds of generations of children who continue to invent the universe that Gene Roddenberry imagined with Star Trek in the 1960s.
Roddenberry sucked teams of writers into his imagined universe, and collectively they dreamed up descendants for us, humans of earth, who overcome their base nature and graduate to Galactic citizenship.
That bright vision for our future has spawned multiple TV series with episodes that resolve in an hour and end with a message of hope.
These imagined intergalactic travels rely on imagined science that has actually inspired real scientists.
By setting one-hour moral conundrums in the future, Gene Roddenberry taught us to yearn for, Star Trek and others like StarGate SG-1 invite hope simply by allowing us to believe that we can become a better society that espouses more noble ambitions than the one in which we currently exist.
These worlds allow technology and science to coexist with an unseen magical realm we don’t understand and rarely see. Young viewers can see others like themselves doing important jobs of all sorts. Deep philosophical concepts are explored.
Utopian societies and their inevitable difficulties come up again and again; untold greedy leaders are toppled by common people who have finally found some charismatic leader to show them the way to take back their rights on the world after world.
In StarGate SG-1, this is a common theme, and the underdogs are often led by good old Captain O’Neil, Daniel Jackson, Samantha Carter, and Teal’c to an understanding of their own worth and their rights.
The evil overlords are defeated, perhaps with a heroic sacrifice or a moment of clarity and redemption for someone. The goal of each episode is always to find some spark of compassion to save the day.
Imagination is the inspiration that brings hope.
CEO and Founder, Name Colorology Group | Author, “Your Name and Colors: Key To Your Beauty, Career, Personality, Romance and Success!“
Imagination is humans’ greatest tool for survival
Imagination is humans’ greatest tool to be able to survive, solve our daily problems and make life more convenient and comfortable.
All modern inventions that have ever been made are because humans used imagination, and without it, we still would be back in the stone age, or humans probably would have died out from disease or other natural causes.
We wouldn’t have had the medicines, machines, and tools to combat major diseases or catastrophes.
Imagination is used every day to solve all kinds of problems; we just couldn’t cope without it. Whenever we have a problem to solve, our imagination is the tool that our mind uses to search for the answer to solve the problem.
Imagination has no limits; it is boundless.
But before imagination goes to work to solve problems, it has to be allowed to do so by an open-minded person that believes it is possible to do so or at least try.
Closed-minded people don’t have “faith” that a problem can be solved. They hardly ever make any new inventions and do not use their imagination abilities, and do not cultivate them and leave them dormant.
So now you see it is the character attribute of “faith” that tells the imagination, “ok, it is possible to solve a particular problem,” and gives it the go-ahead to start to search for the answer.
After imagination comes up with different creative ideas of how to solve a problem or create an invention, then our common sense “logical” mental center goes to work and helps to determine which imaginative ideas will work.
So now you see, imagination is like an internet search engine that goes out to search for what you are looking for, but it does not work alone; it works with the attributes of faith, creativity, and logic.
Madeline Svoboda, EdS, NCSP
School Psychologist | Contributor, USA Rx
It is important for social and emotional growth
Imagination is fundamental to social and emotional growth over the course of a lifetime, with special importance during early childhood.
Caregivers typically notice snippets of imaginative play when their child is two or three years old. For example, the child will gesture with a spoon as if feeding a toy.
Often imaginative play mimics adult responsibilities and other behaviors that the child observes. Toy companies capitalize on this by marketing toys related to domestic skills like cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and pets.
The child is extrinsically motivated to demonstrate these behaviors due to positive reinforcement in the form of attention and praise from caregivers. More importantly, through imagination, children develop abilities to express themselves and more independently meet their needs.
While imagination starts as an individual activity, it grows into cooperative play with others.
Sharing, turn-taking, active listening, empathy, body awareness, and many more social skills are practiced during imaginative play experiences with peers like “house” and “school.”
Children observe patterns in behavior to attain desired outcomes, namely:
- power and control,
- social status, or
- access to preferred objects or activities
Many assume imagination means daydreaming about dragons and pirate ships, but imaginative thinking is not necessarily based on fantasy. In fact, using imagination to explain and ask questions about reality can be more productive and even help people cope with stress and trauma.
Play therapy, music therapy, and art therapy are all evidence-based practices that use imaginative thinking to facilitate emotional and even physical healing.
A preschooler may use dolls to explain a domestic violence incident. An elementary student may paint a picture to remember their late grandfather. An adult may improve fine motor skills and self-esteem by learning an instrument.
These creative acts use imagination to express and reframe emotional experiences without relying on advanced language or cognitive-behavioral skills.
Imagination is a valuable tool for processing the human experience and relating with one another.
The Library Fairy
Storyteller, Author, and Arts Educator | Podcast Host, The Library Fairy – Kids’ Stories and Folktales
Promotes creative ways of thinking
The imagination is vital to members of any society. It nurtures hope, possibilities, and the arts. The imagination also promotes creative ways of thinking.
Beyond beautiful expressions that take form throughout the performing arts, bringing meaning and enjoyment to our existence, utilizing our dynamic cognitive abilities allows us to find out-of-the-box solutions to problems.
This is crucial to emotional and psychological health, as we can forge new paths and ways out of challenges. It’s no mistake that history is filled with distinguished scientists, physicians, and engineers who were creative thinkers.
Albert Einstein said, “Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
It was also said by Dr. Mae Jemison, “Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.”
She was the first African-American in space, an engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut, breaking racial and gender barriers along the way.
Storytelling and the imagination
Storytelling is a powerful art and profoundly promotes imagination, especially for children.
For example, when children listen to and imagine (or draw) the elements of the stories, this also stimulates their artistic abilities and symbolic-thinking capacity.
The latter transfers into success in other subjects that utilize symbols, such as:
- Visual arts
Imagine a whole new generation of problem solvers.
Additionally, when children are taken on an imaginative journey with characters from other cultures, it promotes a profound sense of understanding and empathy for those characters and cultures.
It allows them to vicariously experience the characters’ journeys, gaining all the benefits along the way.
They can express their feelings and fears safely through stories. It’s one of the reasons why they love hearing the same stories again and again.
Of course, the love of stories, characters, and imaginings creates a strong affection and connection to books, movies, and entertainment as we grow older. Used wisely, these can be powerful forces for good.
Executive Legacy Coach, Keynote Speaker, and TV & Event Host
The limit of humankind is set by our imagination
As Walt Disney said: “if you can dream it, you can do it.”
Everything which is created by humankind today that makes our lives easier is only in existence because somebody imagined it.
When Rob Disney When Disney World opened in Orlando on the 1st of October 1971, Walt’s brother Rob was asked what his brother would have said if he could see this. Rob answered: “He did see it. If he hadn’t seen it, none of us would be able to see it.”
Millions of kids would not be goofing around with Goofy or having fun with Mickey if one person would not imagine it.
Imagination is what sets us apart
Already the Bible said, “without a vision, people perish.”
What differentiates us from animals is the ability to imagine something in our future and manifest it in our lives.
Imagination gives us the gift of making the invisible visible by creating something “out of thin air.” Humankind would still be living in caves without the ability to imagine.
Instead, we are moving forward at speed much faster than any animal in cars someone else imagined on roads that somebody else imagined.
Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is one of the most famous speeches in history. 250,000 people showed up on the 28th of August 1963 to hear him speak.
They did not come to hear concrete action steps or a concrete plan.
What they came to hear was someone sparking their own imagination of what humankind could transition to. How we could get better and how the world would become a better place by shifting our beliefs of what we believe is possible.
No human is limited
On the 12th of October 2019, I was part of an event that changed the boundaries of what we imagined to be possible. For decades and centuries, it was as good as set in stone that a human being could not run a marathon in under two hours.
On that special day, Eliud Kipchoge proved everybody wrong by running the 26.2 miles in an hour, 59 minutes, and 40 seconds.
My role was to vocally accompany him as an announcer for the 120,000 people who showed up in Vienna that day as he crossed the finishing line.
Two years prior to that, he had already tried and failed because he didn’t believe that he could do it, but on this day, he was ready. He knew that all the limitations that we set upon us were in our heads.
No human is limited.
It fuels people to go after the impossible and make it possible
Imagination is like taking a loan from a future situation in our life and slowly paying it back to get there and making it real. It gives us the drive to go after something intangible and make it tangible.
Without imagination, we would not have been to the moon, flying around the world, or even had our basic needs met without having to go hunting every day.
Give yourself the gift of imagination
By imagining a better future, you treat yourself with a firework of dopamine which will kickstart your actions and drive you forward.
Take a moment to ask yourself:
- What your life could look like.
- Where would you be if there were no limitations?
- What future do you want to imagine for yourself, your family, and your loved ones?
Imagine how this world will be a better place because of you.
And now go out and let your imagination become a reality… because no human is limited.
Research and Policy Analyst | Freelance Writer and Cultural Strategist
Imagination is a core foundation of all knowledge
Great thinkers and doers have fostered healthy imaginations. Aristotle found imagination to be a core foundation of all knowledge. I agree and find imagination to play a key role in movement-building and creating the world we want to see.
Radical imagination springs up out of the friction between the status quo and a world that better aligns with our values or dreams.
Imaginings like “Imagine what a world that doesn’t need prisons could look like any prisons?” or “What if everyone had a place to call home?” help power our strategies for how to realize those conditions.
Furthermore, to make our imaginations a reality, we don’t have to have it all figured out. Where we are today wasn’t imagined by one person in one afternoon but rather a collective effort over years and years.
I often remind myself of the wisdom of educator and organizer Mariame Kaba “Hope is a discipline.” Imagination and hope go hand in hand.
It can be hard to nurture our hope and imagination, especially when, by design, capitalism robs us of our radical imagination by forcing many to focus on living paycheck to paycheck.
But we have to encourage our radical dreaming because cynicism and acceptance about the state of the world only benefit the status quo.
Founder and Sole Owner, Enroll
It helps us turn out dreams into reality
As we age, we no longer hear about imagination and instead hear more about creativity. These are basically the same thing, as you use both to try and think of ways to improve your situation and help to make your dreams come true.
When we are small, we often use imagination to create a false reality and to think up characters and pretend we are someone different. All of these things can help us later in life when it comes to trying to imagine what we want to learn in school or what we want to be when we grow up.
Imagination is important because it helps us to turn something we imagine into reality.
When we are looking to take on a new career, it is our imagination (or creativity) that allows us to look into the future to figure out how we can get there. We think of scenarios that can help us and scenarios that might not be so helpful.
This imagination can help us to achieve our goals and make it easier to figure out the best ways to go about finding a career that we will love.
Head of Growth, Instrumentl
Imagination is a creative faculty of the human mind
Imagination is a creative faculty of the human mind and one of the functions of consciousness.
It enables humans to represent the world around them using abstract concepts mentally and to create plans and make predictions about future events.
For instance, somebody might imagine what it would be like to fly to the moon or what it would be like to live in a different country. Imagining these may generate mental images, sensations, and concepts that are not present in the moment.
Imagination is an important cognitive process
Imagination is also an important cognitive process involved in memory and perception.
Through perception, we develop schemas that help us make sense of the world and make predictions about it. However, our ability to see reality is limited by our expectations, biases, and past experiences.
For example, if we have a negative schema about a particular situation, we are more likely to see it in a negative light which limits us from noticing the positive aspects of that situation.
Imagination helps us to get over these limitations by allowing us to see the world from a variety of perspectives.
It gives us the ability to see the potential for what could be
Lastly, imagination ignites passion by allowing us to see the potential for what could be.
Imagine you are an artist. You see a blank canvas and imagine what you could create with it. This is what passion feels like. It’s the excitement of seeing the potential for something great and the motivation to make it happen.
When we use our imagination, we tap into a powerful source of energy that can help us achieve our goals.
It is the driving force to do more than fantasize about our future
Imagination is the driving force that allows us to do more than daydream or fantasize about our future. It stimulates our minds to generate new ideas and visualize ourselves achieving great life goals.
We depend solely on imagination daily, whether we are faced with an issue at work or deciding on what strategies to take while planning for our future.
It allows us to be more creative and innovative
Imagination is one of our most valuable assets in creativity as it influences everything we do, think about and create.
Thinking outside the box is a basic requirement for our creativity and invention in life.
Being creative fosters limitless innovative ideas, which act as the driving force to change our future for the better. It allows us to look at any situation or challenge from a different perspective and mentally explore all possible solutions to help us achieve our goals and ambitions.
If you let your imagination run wild and drive innovative solutions in your life, you will develop critical thinking skills that will inspire your sense of humanity.
For example, most artists thrive in arts and crafts because of their increased imagination and creative capacity. Creative and imaginative play helps them develop the skills needed for critical thinking and solid problem-solving.
This helps them discover new ways to do things, paving the way for innovation.
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