Reclaiming the Imagination

Reclaiming the Imagination


By Hwaa Irfan

One of the most fortunate people in these tumultuous times, is a child who still has their imagination intact. It is with great sadness that one observes far too many small people who have lost their childhood via a process of parenting to much in a rush to turn their children into small versions of themselves.

It was in awe that I watched a four year old upper middle class child who one thought could not be redeemed derobe the mantle of what his parents thought he should be, to become lost in the world of imagination with four other boys. The huge climbing frame was to them a sinking ship, and the boy that I referred to was a boy struggling to hold onto the rope, (which was the only way up), as he called with all the passion of a seasoned actor to his mother “I love you mummy” as he slipped further and further down into the sea – i.e. drowning.

Not exactly the kind of scenario one would want for a child to play, it was apparent  how much this child had watched that film, or films like it, and how it had taken control of his imagination, and what kind of boy he would be if his imagination was of his own making instead of that created and handed over by the 20th/21st century world of adults.

When I asked a group of children who their best friend at home is, one girl of the same age as the boy previously mentioned, said her doll. She was the only child who referred to an inanimate object, and whose Barbie world is the only world she knows.  One wonders what level of programming, unintentional though it may be, that parents inflict on their children that at such a tender age, that their world is completely remodelled by artefacts from the adult world.

One of the crimes that us adults have inflicted on children is the removal of their imagination as a separate and unnecessary entity from reality, a strange concept when one looks at how reality means different things for different cultures. For far too long ’experts’ have obsessed over human cognition and underdeveloping the young human brain as if it was a computer to absorb curious notions of knowledge to ready the child for status and the gross national products of adulthood. Even when we do give room for the child’s imagination in the schooling system it is directed by adult concepts of good art, leaving little room for self exploration, expression and discovery.

One cultural historian who took an interesting journey into the interesting world of child’s play past and present came up with some interesting discoveries. Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, U.S., which resulted in the publication Mattel and the Thunder Burp.

“It’s interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys,” said Chudacoff to NPR.

“Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object.”

What would of a Nubian boy who grew up in a Nubian island village in Upper Egypt, and never left it for the first 18 years of his life if he had lived on the mainland. Considered ‘slow’ by many and far from the kind of stuff a boy who does well at school is made of ‘S’ spent the first 18 years of his life doing boy things out in the open, fascinated by creating fires, and climbing, as well as making their own boats out of recycled metal to sail on the river. Climbing trees to collect the fruits of a tress labour, and catching fish that was always welcomed by the family – ‘S’ spent his boyhood of the natural predisposition of any young boy. The school he attended was a village school, so there was some understanding and acceptance that allowed for the work of schooling to be fulfilled, and yet respecting the child due to the strong school-home connection, but if he had attended any typical school during the time he grew up he would have suffered the consequence of being considered inadequate, a poor learner, and low self esteem.

By the time he reached 18, he was more ready than any boy to take on adulthood, and able to step onto the mainland, claiming his place in the world. How many boys can claim to be able to do just that with self respect – claiming their place in the world?

Chudacoff argues that before the profit-making venture of toys that have tried to lay claim to the child’s imagination (my interpretation), children roamed in groups big or small, unsupervised and were heavily engaged in the world of imaginative play. Their play was self regulated, and they created their own rules. But in the developed world of the West, this changed dramatically in the middle of the 20th century with the advent of mass produced toys, endeavouring to commercialize the imaginative world of the child.  Urbanization has played a great role in this, reducing the natural playing ground, and with it the freedom that is inclined to their natural disposition.

From a child’s natural world of play, their development took on a natural development that involved all aspects of themselves (emotional, spiritual etc) not exactly the reductionist materialist function that has been imposed on them by adults in order that children may ‘fit-in’ to the adult’s world. As a result, there were less contradictions in a child’s development, and a child naturally learnt to self regulate, including their emotions, their behaviour and a sense of discipline. One of the few schools in the world that allows for that natural development is Summerhill, U.K. When one explores the memories of former Summerhill students, of one can drop the tendency to judge, what one will discover are children who learnt to individuate naturally, process their angst, and move onto to become self confident children, then adults who trusted in who they are, and led more rounded fulfilling lives.

Chudacoff states the obvious, as more and more educationalists (parents included) struggle to cope with children who lack self regulation. Chudacoff refers to a 1940s study whereby psychologists asked children aged 3, 4, and 7 to carry out some simple tasks. One of those tasks was to stand still without moving. The 3 –year olds could not stand still for one moment, the 5-year olds stood still for as much as three seconds, and the 7-year olds stood still for as long as the researchers asked. This study was repeated in 2001, by psychologist Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning. The result was 5-year olds of the 21st century could not stand still, and 7-year olds could barely do what 5-year olds could do 60 years previous.

Researcher Laura Berk explained that the world of make belief for children was crucial, because it is in make-belief that children engage in private speech. In private speech children talk about what they are going to do, and why they are going to do it – in other words, self regulation. The more structured the play, the less private speech takes place.

If we ever wondered why children tend to play with the empty tissue box we are about to throw away etc, now we know why, and added to that is the fact that manufactured toys actually reduces the imagination.

Berk also informs NPR that a child engaged in make belief has been observed to be more responsible at preschool. They are more ready to clean-up afterwards, and help others to do so even without the teacher asking.

The make belief world garners he imagination in a manner that a child ‘grows up’ naturally, becoming not only more responsible, but able to direct their imagination in a way that provides problem solving skills instead of expecting the solution from external sources. Sharing in their make belief world makes them feel more confident about who they are, and more able to cope with the Ferris wheel of life!


Spiegel, A.  “Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills.”

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