Friday, December 09, 2011

Encourage Imagination ( not fantasy ) in your child

Armaan, a father of 4  year old child, told me last week "I put my child in play school, because play school is helpful for child's imagination. Once he can read, I will give him comic books to fire his imagination. At the end, it is imagination that makes the child creative. Isn't it?''.

I think Armaan is confused between imagination and fantasy. Imagination makes the child creative, not fantasy. Let us ponder over this distinction and understand what is Armaan trying to do.

Children at the age of  3-5 are constantly asking us questions to explain things.  For instance, if we explain to the child that 'America is 12000 Kms away from Bangalore'', he cannot understand 12000 kms because he has not even understood the 'meaning' of number, although he can recite 1 to 100. Or if you tell the child that it takes America 'a full day and night to reach', he relates to his journey that he did last year to his grandmother which took a 'full day and night to reach' in the train. America remains 'unreal' to him.

But surprisingly, when the same child stands infront of a globe, where he can see "India' and 'America', he uses his imagination to 'sense' the distance, not 'understand' it.  Till then,  America is in the world of fantasy for a child, much like 'Alice's wonderland'. With the 'globe',  he uses his imagination to 'sense' the part of truth. With 'globe', he feels that 'America' is something 'real', although he has not 'seen' it as concretely as a 'car' or a 'bicycle'. Here globe extends the child's consciousness beyond the concrete, so to say. (As Dr Montessori says, parents and teachers require a special kind of 'training' to nurture a child's imagination.)

Imagination is bringing the object in the 'mind's eye', even though one has not seen it. When a parent tells the child about 'river' or 'mountain', the child can bring it in his mind's eye through the pictures and photos he has seen. It is not fantasy.

But when we tell the child the story of a phantom, he is engaging his mind in an unreal world. When he hears the fairy tale, where 'animals' for instance, speak to each other, he is in the unreal world. In a fantasy, anything is possible. Man can fly, animals can talk, fairies can bring chocolates from air. For a child below 6, whose mind is like a camera which takes on everything indiscriminately,  this creates confusion. He is unable to distinguish between what is real and what is unreal.  A child who cannot get the distinction between real and unreal world, for instance, understand why it is not possible to buy an ice cream at 1 o'clock at night.

Comics, fairy tales and cartoons create an unreal world for a child. This helps him 'fantasise' and makes  him 'imagine' impossible events and happenings. Imagination, on the other hand,  helps the child in seeing different possibilities while simultaneously anchoring him to 'reality'. A child sees "America" in his imagination', but he knows that he cannot 'fly' to America in a minute like a superman.

Imagination seems to serve three functions in the child's growth. One, Imagination helps the child to perceive 'what is not concretely seen' and go near  the truth, such as in the case of understanding "America'. Imagination helps the child to extend his mind's consciousness to learn faster, so to say. Here, imagination is the force to discover truth.

The second function of imagination ( and probably more powerful ) is to drive the curiosity and interest of child. When a child is told a story of  'How Land of India moved and created Himalayas thousands of years ago', his imagination is 'activated' to ask 'how could this happen' and learn Geography.  Or when the child is told that 'Caterpillar becomes a butterfly', it fires his imagination to know more about biology.

The third function of imagination is 'defensive' in nature. It helps the child escape the 'harsh' reality of the world for the time being and gives him 'hope' to go further. This function could be used for meeting different ends. For instance, it can act like a savior for a child who has to live in difficult conditions, either at home or in the society.

Going back to our original discussion, what helps creativity? Is it imagination or fantasy? Creativity is using imagination to see beyond 'what is possible' after understanding the 'current reality'. Scientific fiction writers, such as H G Wells,  are popular, because they help child see the 'realm of impossibility', while anchoring their story in the world of  'reality'. When the child's mind wanders in any direction without the anchor of reality, such child is called 'deviated' by psychologists, not 'creative'.

What would you advise Armaan now? Does a play school , beyond enabling coordination of movement, foster fantasy ( or imagination ) in a child below 6 years of age?

Do comics and cartoons help the child become creative after the age of 6 ? What do you think? 

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