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What have we done to our children’s imaginations?

When Keats referred to the truth of the imagination’, he acknowledged that we create a moving landscape in which the different contours and shapes of all the impressions and images around us begin to form a coherent picture. In that sense imagination is the truth of what we see and hear. The purpose of great education should be to stimulate the imagination.

Yet societies through much of history have  constrained and even stifled imagination as children grow up. As Picasso put it in the context of painting: “What might be taken as precocious genius is the genius of childhood . When the child grows up, it disappears without a trace. It may happen that this boy will become a real painter one day, or even a great painter. But then he will have to begin everything again, from zero.”

Futurists were stunned by the creative suggestions flowing from a group of 14 and 15 year olds.

New technologies

The advance and availability of new technologies should offer a cornucopia of opportunities to develop the imagination; some do, but most are whizz bangs, ephemeral fireworks to be enjoyed and then forgotten, or stolid adjuncts to the  academic curriculum. When the bonds of the fixed curriculum are released and a different narrative explained, it can lead to remarkable results. One group of academics and futurists in America were  stunned by the creative  suggestions flowing from a group of 14 and 15 year olds whose  risk-taking and daring to think the impossible opened up possibilities that adults would not see. They were envisaging solutions to problems that would affect the lives of one billion people.  The academics went on to observe that by the age of 18 this risky energy had dissipated, drained away, they felt, by the pressure and yawning reality of college admission, grades and expectations.

Imagination is not just a nice-to have and it is not an educational ‘outcome’ to be ‘delivered’.

​This really matters.

Imagination  is not just a nice-to have and it is not an educational ‘outcome’ to be ‘delivered’. It is our imagination that allows us not just to feel unthreatened by the vast landscape and distant horizon that lie before us, but to celebrate  the unknown beyond the horizon. It is through our  imagination that we learn as children that the world exists without us and that, rather than being frighten by that revaluation, we can embrace life at the limits of our understanding. As a consequence, it is the imagination that gives us the flexibility and  lightness of the mind to respond to all that life has to offer, a resilience more profound than anything achieved through intellectual or physical discipline. In the world our children are facing, this ability is crucial.

Harnessing youthful creative energy into something of lasting  consequence for the child and potentially for a much larger group, needs sustained, well scaffolded support that is designed to liberate the mind. This should be a major priority. Once this liberating power of the imagination is culled, once it is lost it is hard to retrieve. As Picasso noted, “It takes a long time to learn to become young”.

As Picasso noted, “It takes a long time to learn to become young”.