When we speak of children and imagination we think of a child pretending or creating. I find this very appropriate because, in essence, it is precisely the difference between pretending and creating that marks the developmental boundary between early childhood and the elementary years.
Often we confuse imagination with fantasy. Imagination is the ability to consider possibilities. It is based in reality. Fantasy, on the other hand, has no basis in reality. It is the use of mental powers to think out the preposterous. All of us remember pretending to be someone or something in our childhood. Perhaps you pretended to be an astronaut or a teacher. But while you are reminiscing ask yourself, “How old was I when I played teacher?” Most likely, you were six or seven, not three or four.
Most “pretend play” in children under six is, in fact, imitative play. The child recreates roles and personalities that he or she has seen in his or her immediate environment. A little girl will pretend to cook just like Mommy. A little boy will go to work or cut the grass, just like Daddy. Both will drive a car because they have seen you do it. Children, today will play “school” at a younger age because they go to school at a younger age.
If you observe closely you will realize that there is very little real imagination going on. The child will say the things he or she has heard you say. Children will perform the tasks that they have seen you do but they use dolls or toys so it is mistaken for imagination.
Sadly today, most of a child’s imitative play is based on TV characters. What activities does your child regularly see you do? Is that why they are so interested in the computer? Is that why they play restaurant or store more frequently than traditional household activities? Is that why they pretend to go to work?
If you ask a young child to pretend to go on a trip he or she will most likely recreate some trip that your family has taken. It is nearly impossible for a three or four year old child to create a scenario that is purely imaginative.
Maria Montessori noticed this behavior in young children and decided that imitative play was in fact, a child’s attempt to find meaning in the events he or she saw on a daily basis. She decided to use the child’s natural love and admiration for you, as expressed in his or her imitative play, and offered real tasks such as scrubbing or polishing to the children. Practical Life was born! By using the child’s love of imitation she created tasks that children love to perform but, more importantly, tasks which help the child develop his or her powers of concentration as well as the gross and fine motor skills.
By about age six children are moving into a new ‘”sensitive period” of mental ability. The child can now “create” scenarios that may be based in experience but which contain an element of pretend that goes beyond the actual experience. These older children can form a generalization that takes off from its experiential foundation. This child can “imagine” a trip to the moon. He or she will start with experiential knowledge by packing a bag and some food but can imagine the details of a trip never taken.
In the classroom the child may add simple numbers with a variety of materials and then, one day, the light bulb goes off and the child understands that putting two quantities together will always give you a bigger quantity. This new ability to generalize from the known experience is imagination in its most powerful form.
This power to generalize, or imagination, is the power that will find the cure for cancer, solve our energy crisis, save the environment, or create great works of art and literature. Imagination enables the human mind to conjecture about possibilities. Simple pretend or imitative play will never get that far. A child who is locked into imitation is not conjecturing about the possibilities. A child who devotes most of his or her time to fantasy is missing the point of imagination as a mental power.
A child who moves into exploring the imaginative powers of the mind has opened the door to the future – one of great possibility!