Stirring a Child’s Imagination

By J. Ruth Gendler

"Simplicity" Monotype by Ruth Gendler. 2013

When I was ten, I planned to be an artist or a writer but never a nurse. A teacher wasn’t part of the picture either.  And yet teaching writing and art to children and adults, something which I fell into almost accidentally after my first book, The Book of Qualities, was published and I was invited to bring Qualities into a middle school classroom, has been an immense and gorgeous part of my life.

When I first started teaching in the schools, I carried in lots of poems from adults to use as models to inspire our writings.  But over the years, as I gathered examples from other children, I tend to bring in the work of young writers. (Often I brought the children’s work to my adult classes!)

I didn’t realize I would be so constantly amazed and astonished by the casual profundity of children’s writing, the directness, and transparency of their images, the generosity of their insights. Teaching kids has kept me in touch with the power of closely observing and celebrating the world around us, listening to our senses, and developing our own metaphors. We have written about what we see and hear, our questions and the elements, hands, faces, trees, heart and soul, night and day, sports, our imaginations, and words. Whenever possible, given the time constraints of working as a guest in the classroom, I encourage students to accompany their words with pictures.  

In 2014 I put together an exhibit of the children’s picture poems along with 10 of my monotypes for the Commonwealth Club of California. In my bio I described myself as an anthropologist of the imagination.  I see my task not so much in terms of educating the imagination as cultivating the imagination. Cultivating, related to culture, to caring, training, and encouraging; cultivating related to the garden, tending the soil, and encouraging the growth of young shoots. Cultivating requires patience and tenderness and attention to the metaphoric weather in the classroom as well as skill. Tending the imagination together we honor its invisible roots and bright flowers.

Working with elementary school students, I often tell them that if I didn’t know their age, I wouldn’t be able to tell from their writings. Their images–wise, subtle, and emotionally sophisticated–speak across time and place to report on the imagination’s experiences and feelings.

My intentions and tasks as a poet in the school are simple, similar to my creative assignments to myself and adults.

Prepare and extend an invitation.

Trust the soul that wants to speak. 

Look in. Look out. Look toward. Look away. Look through. Look beyond. 

Listen carefully.

Notice what is working and encourage it. 

Balance gentleness with rigor.  

Remember that revision is a revisiting, an opportunity to compress and elaborate.

Often the best way to revise is to read the words aloud.

Let the work lead to new work. Sometimes directly, taking a seed, a sentence, or an image from the finished work and starting a new piece.  Often on the last day of a poetry residency, I ask the students for other subjects for poems they can write on their own. I can’t even say why but one of the most striking suggestions for a subject was “glue!”

More and more I believe the human imagination can be considered an essential natural resource – not rare but precious – and it needs our attention to flourish. In exploring our imaginations, I’ve found open-ended questions especially useful, whether we go on to use them to write from or dance or scribble them underneath a painting. Invitations, not prescriptions—these are questions for each of us to answer in our own ways! (Perhaps, instead of answering these questions all at once, live with and let different answers emerge over time.)

How do we imagine our own imaginations, and how do we want to befriend them, honor them, bring them into relationship with other kinds of vision?  What animals and plants do we associate with them? How do your hands express your imagination?

 When are our imaginations friendly, and when do they amplify our worries in ways that are not useful? 

What is the relationship between imagination and fear in your life, between imagination and curiosity, between imagination and intuition?

How do we feed our imaginations? What kind of metaphoric food and real music do we want to give them?

The elementary school children I have worked with often report that younger children have more imagination than they do. And they have more imaginations than their older siblings and parents! As one reported, “It’s because you don’t know anything when you are five.”  It is as if when we learn more, we don’t need our imagination as much! But what if that isn’t true? What if the imagination is a friend that we can walk with throughout our lives?  I tell the kids about a lawyer who talks about how he needs his imagination in his work to connect the past and the future. Imagination allows you to travel forward and back, to envision and map a path forward.  I am reminded of a student, Zach K, who wrote:

Once I was a tiny sapling

Now I am a giant redwood

Once I was a little spark

Now I am a colorful flame

Once I was a puny snowflake

Now I am a blizzard

Once I was a small ice cube

Now I am a glacier

Once I was a blade of grass,

anything but large,

Now I am a field of reeds, so very vast.

Our imaginations connect us to nature. A sixth grader wrote, “I think Imagination lives in a garden of roses and every time a flower blooms, a new idea is born,” creating a link between the outer world and the inner world, between a thought and a flower. The reciprocity between our imaginations and the living world is stated simply and beautifully.

I asked a ten-year-old if Hawaii was the most beautiful place she had ever been, and she answered promptly, “No, my imagination is.” To her, it was obvious that the imagination is much more immense and beautiful than any one place. 

Here are some more offerings from my students.

My imagination is a free spirit roaming the grounds watching the past and thinking of how the world has changed and imagining how humankind can change the world and us free spirits roam the grounds dreams are being watched and remembered by the mind of myself and thinking what the dreams are saying. — Kevin, 4th grade


My imagination is like a rainforest

ready for a whole day of exploring.

My imagination is like a mirror,

it reflects things from a day 

and changes them slightly. 

My imagination is like laughter

because I forget pain or sickness.

My imagination is like a muscle

because a muscle grows by exercising 

and imagination grows as you exercise it.

My imagination is like a stop sign.

I have to look and listen.

— Sara, 4th grade

My imagination is like a pot filled to the top,

Always bubbling over with new ideas.

Spilling out its knowledge.

It always needs more ingredients,

Never does it fill up.

Sometimes it is fierce,

Boiling over and steaming,

Other times it is hungry,

Grabbing up all the ingredients possible.

My imagination never goes to sleep,

It is always awake on watch.

My imagination is me.

— Caroline, 4th grade

Perhaps one of the most overlooked gifts of the imagination is how it can open a door to empathy, to seeing nuance and possibility, to imaging the texture of another’s experience.  Certainly useful if we want to write novels or paint portraits or honor our ancestors. Seems we also need this capacity right now in our civic life.  At  this time of such polarization and immense change, what does it mean to imagine the life of someone who has very dissimilar politics, who is much older or younger, who lives in a very different landscape?

An old writing exercise invites writers to imagine someone different from them going to sleep or waking up. Immediately we are in the territory of thinking about who is different from us. One high school girl, an honors student, in Omaha, wrote a scene about a girl at a reform school going to sleep. A third-grader wrote about the cows waking up wondering “At the farm how do the cows wake up? Who wakes them up? And what do they say to each other? Do they know what a poem is?” One time I imagined a soldier, separated from his buddies, on a humid night in Vietnam. 

Ruth Gendler with one of her young poets. Photo by Ohlen Alexander, LAMORINDA wWekly

Going further, can you make up a dream for that person or animal who is about to go to sleep or wake up? What an invitation! Even if we don’t remember our dreams, most of us know the sensation of dreaming: a hummingbird larger than a bear, a room that seems familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, flying, falling, being lost and found.  The freedom in making up a dream is vast—there is no way to do this wrong.  

Nothing happens that we don’t imagine. What we imagine is a kind of inner/outer seeing; it comes in before it goes out. The eye of the imagination is the eye of the heart looking into the secrets of the soul, illuminating the hidden sources of beauty, then looking out toward the edge of vision. The eye of the imagination is the eye of empathy, imagining what the world looks like to another person, imagining that the things in this world are looking back at us. It is the eye of coherence connecting the parts into a whole, the past to the future, juxtaposing colors and textures to design an outfit, a room, a garden.

In this time when we are drowning in information and the images of others, when so much seems fragile and urgent, my hope is that we find a way to take the time to listen to, nurture, and cultivate our imaginations. And from time to time, whether we think of ourselves as artists or not,  give form in language or movement or art or music or a beautiful meal to this wise and playful and often neglected part of our souls.

Artist J. Ruth Gendler is the author of the best-selling The Book of Qualities, the award-winning Notes on the Need for Beauty, and the anthology,  Changing Light.  Gendler’s art, including paintings, drawings, and monotypes, has been exhibited nationally and featured on the covers of several books published in the United States and Asia. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email