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  • Horst Kornberger

Imagination and Childhood

In a quickly changing world, the demands of the future are not easily met. This is particularly true for education, whose task is to prepare the young of today for the challenges of tomorrow. Leading thinkers recognize that creativity, innovation, empathy, social dexterity and adaptability will be the defining capacities in times to come. Central to these abilities is the imagination: the capacity to think pictorially. The imagination allows us to think outside the box, see the bigger picture, and establish real relationships and act in responsible ways.

This picture thinking has its roots in early childhood. The young child lives in pictures. Intellectual conceptions are foreign to the child. A simple statement such as, 'Put those blocks away now that you are not using them any more,' dowses the child, who is still bathing in the warm picture life of childhood imagination, in the cold water of adult conceptions.

To point out to the child that 'the blocks left out of the basket feel alone without their friends' will be much more readily understood. To the child, blocks are not lifeless object. They are animated playthings ready to transform into cars, cats, cows or sheep. An attentive parent who remembers that these blocks were, just a minute ago, sheep on a meadow in the child's imagination will, of course, talk of sheep wanting to return to their flock or tractors waiting to return to their garage.. Children understand relationship because of their attachment to mother, father and family. It makes immediate sense to them to return lost sheep to where they belong.

If we express ourselves in this way we not only speak a language the child understands, we enter her world and relate to her on her own terms. Addressed in this way the child is assured of our care and understanding. She will follow our guidance not only because she fully understands that sheep need to be in the fold, but because of the deep connectedness of which this statement is proof. She will act out of love rather than out of duty. The same principle applies to all communication-based professions, particularly teaching and therapy.

Current brain research throws additional light on this approach, particularly the ability of the mind to change the structure of the brain (neuro-plasticity). This happens most strongly in the 'critical period' of early childhood. Here, adult concepts affect the brain in a very different manner from pictures which are the natural habitat of the young child:  Intellectual concepts are clear cut, linear, one-dimensional operations of the mind. Their very clarity necessitates the isolation that marks most adult concepts. In contrast, pictorial thinking is multidimensional, mobile, associative. Metaphors are like conceptual socialites communicating profusely with their kind. Their meaning is multi- rather than one-dimensional. They are part of the living, complex, continuously changing network we call imagination.

Modern brain research shows that the habits of the mind become the structure of the brain. It seems obvious that the richly layered, multidimensional contents of childhood imaginations will produce a more interrelated brain: a physical instrument more mobile, interconnected and better equipped for the tasks ahead. The complex metaphors of childhood build a complex brain for which intellectual operation are but one of many options. Reared on the intellectual diet of today the brain cannot but become an overspecialized and hence limited structure. The difference is similar to building a complex computer as opposed to a simple one. The complex machine will do all that the simple one does, but the reverse is not possible.

The ability to communicate in pictures and metaphors is one of the most important skills for parents, teachers and therapists. Without it many of our best efforts will remain unrequited: we will continue to give instructions in a language foreign to the child. Even worse: we will be speaking in a language that makes those who hear it resent those who use it. Children want relationship and addressing them in a language that makes them feel that this relationship is not in place is at the core of many conflicts. They resist and continuously rebel in order to get the attention our intellectual communications deny them.


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