Why is imagination important in child development?
Imagination supports learning and the acquisition of knowledge. It does this in two ways. Children draw on their imagination in play to revisit prior knowledge and experience (e.g. a day at the beach, visiting a relative in hospital). This, in turn, expands their knowledge and understanding of these experiences. However, it is not simply about learning what is already known.
Importantly, children use their imagination to explore new knowledge and ideas, for example, revisiting the day at the beach could lead to imagining life underwater. When play taps into the imagination of other children and adults, the possibilities for exploration and learning are endless.
The connection between children’s imagination, knowledge and learning has been known for some time. Celebrated Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, has had a significant influence on early childhood education in Australia and around the world.
Vygotsky was particularly interested in imagination and creativity in learning. He distinguished between two types of brain activity: the ability to store and reproduce existing knowledge; and the ability to draw together existing knowledge and experience to create new ideas and possibilities.
While recognising both support learning, he maintained that building children’s imagination, creative thinking and ability to generate new knowledge and ideas was critical in modern society.
Imagination and creative thinking in the curriculum
Drawing on the work of Vygotsky and others, the Australian Early Years Learning Framework requires educators to work with children and families to support the development of lifelong learning dispositions such as curiosity, creativity and imagination.
Supporting imaginative play and other creative experiences are recognised as providing opportunity for children to:
- explore new ideas
- practise problem-solving
- plan and test ideas and solutions
- learn through trial and error
- take calculated risks; and
- learn to accept failure and try again.
Building on the Early Years Learning Framework, the Australian School Curriculum includes a focus on teaching children to be creative thinkers. This is defined as follows:
“Creative thinking involves students learning to generate and apply new ideas in specific contexts, seeing existing situations in a new way, identifying alternative explanations, and seeing or making new links that generate a positive outcome.” (Australian Curriculum, 2019)
Vygotsky would be pleased. In early education and school, there is currently a strong focus on encouraging children’s imagination and building their ability to think flexibly and creatively, to innovate and solve problems.
From a very early age, most children have great imaginative power and creative ability. However, like all areas of learning and development, these are enriched through practise and experience. Some children may need a little more help to develop their creative thinking skills.
What is most important in the early years: Knowledge or imagination and creative thinking?
Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying “Imagination is more important than knowledge”. His rationale was that knowledge is limited to what we currently know and understand. In contrast, imagination enables us to explore and create new knowledge and understanding.
As an educator, I don’t believe it is ‘either or’. We want children to learn things that we feel are important to know. The knowledge that we think is important is identified in the Early Years Learning Framework and Australian School Curriculum. However, recognising that knowledge isn’t fixed, we also need children to be flexible, imaginative and creative thinkers.
Best of all, imagination provides a foundation for both. Encouraging your child to use their imagination supports their acquisition of knowledge and capacity for creative thinking, and will equip them for success in school and life.