by Haleh Ardebili

Click here for audio of Episode 2905

Today, the gift of imagination. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A child's imagination is a wonderful world. Young children are often privileged with unbiased and innocent imaginative minds. Perhaps nothing is impossible in a child's mind. This human treasure in the hands of nurturing parents and educators can become a strong foundation for a child's future creativity.

Lev S. Vygotsky
Lev S. Vygotsky [Wikipedia image]

As I was pondering this view, I came across a phrase from a Columbia University anthropologist, Michael Taussig: "The adult's imagination of the child's imagination." Taussig suggests that an adult's imagination mirrors that of a child and a child's imagination reflects that of an adult. They interact continuously.

As adults, we're fascinated by children's imaginative minds. Do we subconsciously tap into our childhood frame of imagination?

More questions arise: What is imagination? How does it begin?

According to Russian developmental psychologist L. S. Vygotsky, imagination is a form of human consciousness. It first appears in a young child and it's often initiated by an action. Vygotsky suggests that when a young child plays, he or she transforms imagination into action. Hence, an important emphasis on the role of "play" in children. As we grow older, this relation is reversed: Imagination becomes "play" without the action.

children playing in sandbox
Children playing: an exercise of our imagination at early age
[Wikipedia image by Artaxerxes]

Psychologists have long debated the role of imaginative vs. realistic mind. Some believe that fantasy and play is only unique to a young child and may diminish in adulthood. Harvard professor Paul Harris explains that this is wrong: "Human beings have a gift for fantasy, which shows itself at a very early age, and then continues to make all sorts of contributions to our intellectual and emotional life throughout the lifespan."

little boy dressed as a cowboy sits on dog
[Powerhouse Museum Collection]

And this brings us back to my original thought: imagination and science. The gift of imagination has "played" a significant role in our scientific discoveries, technological inventions, creative arts and literature. Most of us use imagination on a daily basis: We imagine a goal or a state of being to work toward; we imagine alternative decisions and their potential outcomes to make an intelligent decision. Our logical and imaginative minds work hand in hand. Imagination is hard to define, slippery to recognize — and yet essential to the well-functioning children, and the adults they become.

I'm Haleh Ardebili at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

Buzz salutes the US flag on the moon
Landing on the moon: our imagination at work [NASA Apollo Archive]

(Theme music)


The Adult's Imagination of the Child's Imagination.

L.S. Vygotsky, Imagination and Creativity in Childhood, Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol 42, no. 1, pp. 7-97, originally published in 1967; English Translation in 2004.

"Who Needs Imagination?" An Interview with Professor Paul Harris, Harvard Graduate School of Education, March 1, 2002.

Natalia Gajdamaschko, Vygotsky on imagination: Why an understanding of the imagination is an important issue for schoolteachers, Teaching Education, Volume 16, Issue 1, pages 13-22, 2005.

Jean Piaget, Play, Dreams and Imitation, 1962.

This episode first aired on Spetember 17, 2013.