What Nourishes the Imagination?

“Imagining something may be the first step in making it happen,” Fred wrote, “but it takes the real time and real efforts of real people to learn things, make things, turn thoughts into deeds or visions into inventions.”

At the start of the school year, we shared this whimsical illustration by the artist (and orthodontist!) Grant Snider on “how to grow imagination.” The storyline in this comic celebrates the wondering, noticing, and growing of ideas. It finishes, in the last three frames, with a message of hope for what is to come. It is the aspiration that, even as children settle into the structures and routines of the school year, the pieces of imagination they bring with them may continue to grow.

But how does imagination grow during the school year? Can children still “take time to wonder” when time – for students and teachers – is squeezed between many academic subjects and extracurricular demands? Can children feel secure enough to “dig a big enough hole” (i.e., make a big enough mistake) when the pressure to succeed and achieve is often accentuated by gold stars, grades, and school-wide test scores?

Fred Rogers wondered, “What nourishes the imagination? Probably more than anything else, loving adults who encourage the imaginative play of children’s own making.” As such loving adults, whether parents or teachers, we wonder what concrete forms such encouragements might take.

Here’s a glimpse of what a Pittsburgh Public Schools kindergarten teacher does to nourish her students’ imaginations. In this short clip, Ms. Pajak has asked the children to take their time to notice the details of small electronic gadgets and then sketch the objects. (This work is part of a larger project called “Children’s Innovation Project”.) As the children proceed, Ms. Pajak moves from table to table to engage each child. Even though her interaction with each child may last no more than 20 seconds, the feedback and encouragement she offers is consistent and powerful.



With a simple “I can tell,” she reflects back to each child what she sees in his or her work. Without needing to dispense superficial praise or labels (e.g.,  beautiful, smart, outstanding), she tells them what she notices, and they appreciate it. She reminds them that “We are never, ever done [with noticing and sketching]!” Her message is simple but deep: It is all right to persist, it is all right to wonder, it is all right to take your time to do something difficult and let something grow. And the children do just that.


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