For a long time psychologists, educators and parents alike have assumed that imaginative play was most useful for learning when set in as realistic a situation as possible. However, is “real” always better than “imaginative” when it comes to the learning landscape?
Many have a fear that learning about, or at the very least not clearly distinguishing between, fantasy and reality can lead to misunderstandings and misconceptions. This assumption underestimates the importance and value of the childhood and nature design principle of “Imagination and Fantasy” as termed by David Sobel, director of Teacher Certification Programs in the Department of Education and director of the Center for Place-based Education at Antioch University New England.
It turns out this may also be, according to research, contradictory to the nature of child development. New research presented in the article “The Fantasy Advantage” by Deena Weisberg published in Scientific American Mind March/April 2016 edition supports the idea that imagination and fantasy may actually improve children’s learning outcomes. In several studies that focused on traditional educational subjects like language arts (vocabulary development) and science, those children who learned though a fantastical (sometimes even a magical) lens that included stories and dramatic play where more likely to develop:
- Deeper understanding of the topic
- Increased sense of curiosity and purpose for continued learning and
- Ability to transfer ideas more creatively to address problems in reality
It seems fantasy helps children learn because it engages their full focus and attention. Because imaginative and fantastical experiences do not follow the typical expectations, it requires creative and divergent thinking in order to make sense of what has just happened in the story or play. Experiencing that which is strange ignites wonder and a desire to seek additional information in order to understand what happened.
Imagination and Fantasy in the Learning Landscape
David Sobel wrote a book titled Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators in which he writes about seven principles that can be used as the foundation to help educators not only integrate nature into the learning landscape, but also be the glue that binds all other subjects and connects children with their place and community. The first of these seven nature principles we will explore is “Imagination and Fantasy.”
Reimagine what it means to learn, educate and be educated. The role of stories, theater, puppet shows, fantasy role playing and even day dreaming needs to be actively integrated into the daily experiences of our children. According to David Sobel, “… our role as storytellers and world creators precedes our role as imparters of knowledge and cultural heritage.”
Through storytelling, not just story listening, our children learn how to creatively address challenges. Later in life, these same methods of creative and fantasy play take new forms like mock trial, historical simulations and student council that become mechanisms to address real-life family, community and societal issues. Imagination and fantasy is a tool that allows children to use creativity, adapt to change and co-create a learning landscape that helps them discover their authentic self in relation to others and the natural world in which they are a part.
Breaking Out of the Dichotomy of ‘If Not This, Than That’
People have created the story that paints the learning landscape and our world in black and white. So much of how we interact with one another and the world is based on an ill-conceived dichotomy based on “either or” which overshadows the colorful mosaic of the “both and more.”
Us versus them. Girl or boy. In or out. On the team, in the club or not. If not this than that. Child or adult. Art or science. Fantasy or reality. In truth our world is much more beautifully diverse and complicated. It isn’t even about seeing the shades of grey, but instead allowing the colorful mosaic of learning and life to reemerge.
Integrating and valuing fantasy and imagination in the learning landscape helps cultivate a mindset of not either or, but both and more. The seemingly contrasting experiences between the fantasy and our understanding of how the world does and does not work actually highlights and clarifies the structure of the real world for young children. Moreover, imaginative thinking is crucial for understanding complex or abstract ideas like “Earth’s natural internet,” new scientific theories like the meaning of life or the place and space in learning where physics and philosophy meet.
If we don’t like the story we are living, we need to value creativity and cultivate diversity in the way we see the world and approach challenges. Changing the story means we need to welcome in diversity and creativity into our learning and life landscapes. Perhaps it is time we remember what we once knew, but have forgotten by integrating ancestral knowledge that has traditionally been passed down to younger generations through what we now call myths, legends, folklore, nursery rhymes and fantastical storytelling. Think beyond what we know to be “real.” Re-frame creativity, value fantasy and imagine what is possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jen is a wife, mother of two joyous children, experiential education mentor, and founder of PERMIE KIDs. She has a M. Ed. in International Education and has worked with children in the U.S. and overseas from early childhood through the primary years, as well as parent-educators. She integrates an ethical, design science methodology with her love for education to help others learn to design a customized education with their children that honors themselves, others, and the earth.