Claire Neri, a student in the English graduate program, got her start in writing in the third grade when she and a few friends spent their recesses and free time creating comic books to distribute to classmates and teachers. She was the writer and they were the artists.
In fourth grade Neri wrote and self-published a 120-page compilation of short stories about her classmates and their supposedly haunted school. It was through writing that Neri used her imagination to better understand her place in the world.
“Writing is so important to imagination because when you use your imagination for writing, we can become like children again, where we can be transported and have those sorts of journeys where it doesn’t matter,” Neri said.
Children seem much more apt to make believe, to create without hesitation and to focus on the enjoyment of activities. However, your imagination does not fade as you grow; it only adapts as your view of the world around you changes.
According to Mount Mary University philosophy professor Austin Reece, imagination in early childhood is influenced by the behavior of surrounding adults.
“We have a certain kind of obedience to authority,” Reece said. “We’re trying to understand our place in the family, our place in the neighborhood. We’re simulating whether it’s tea time, playing with dolls or playing with soldiers. We’re trying to simulate reality to understand it and to find our place within it.”
To make sense of their world, children have many tools. Kieran Egan, an educator whose career focuses on providing teachers with the knowledge they need to better engage the imaginations of children, said that children’s imaginations are shaped by “the tools they have to think with.”
“The first tool we’ve got is a body, and the body has a whole bunch of tools that come with it,” Egan said. “One of the ones that’s very prominent early on, even before we develop language, is our emotions. Children start with an attempt to grasp the world emotionally.”
Children have emotions that contribute to the ways that they think, but it is also what they lack that helps shape their imaginations. Lynn Kapitan, professor and director of the professional doctorate of art therapy program, said that young children have minimal life experiences and use their expansive imaginations to fill in the gaps in understanding.
“Children come up with the most outrageous ideas,” Kapitan said. “They don’t have that much life experience yet, so they don’t know whether reality always works in a certain way or not.”
As a child grows, her reality and experiences expand. Egan said that as a teenager, it is still preferable to read about magical creatures and their fantastic adventures; however, it now must relate to readers’ expanded version of reality.
“There’s a great difference between the magic that is a part of a very young child’s story and the narratives that are a part of a teenager’s story, but they are equally fantastic,” Egan said. “Harry Potter is as magical as Cinderella. It’s just that storytellers make accommodations with reality. They fit it into a real context.”
When we outgrow fairy tales, we’re really just seeking new boundaries of our reality.
“It’s not coincidental that teenagers are interested in ‘Guinness World Records,’ because it’s about the extremes of reality and the limits of experience,” Egan said. “First, it’s these magical, fantastic creatures; later, it’s who had the longest fingernails, who was the fattest person who ever lived or who was the smallest person who ever lived.”
Reece believes that the teenage imagination stage is about growth and exploring the self.
“We can shape our own identities,” Reece said. “We can follow our own curiosity, and sometimes in doing that we challenge norms and authority, we challenge standards, sometimes we think outside the box, but it’s creative and it’s affirming.”
Egan also said, as we get older, we have more experiences and acquire more tools to think with. We only think we are losing our imaginations due to the role that reality plays in a more mature mind.
“Students begin to realize after age 15 and as adults that they no longer have this romantic view of reality,” Egan said. “They know they’re agents that are caught in reality in some way, and they’re not as free as they thought. At the same time they can develop abstract ideas and theoretic ways of dealing with the world.”
Pablo Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
Kapitan said children try to create art that looks the way an adult would create it, and adults try to create art the way children would.
“As you become more and more skilled as an artist, you have a greater and greater desire to go back to that free state of imagination that you had when you were five years old,” Kapitan said. “There’s so much freshness with that.”
Kapitan said that our expanding reality as we grow up affects our imagination, but she believes that adults can still access traits of earlier imagination stages.
“As you get older, you have to really learn how to take what you know and sort of park it aside and engage in not knowing, so that you can re-enter that state of openness to what your imagination offers you,” Kapitan said.
Egan reinforces the idea that our imagination doesn’t leave, but simply develops.
“The tools remain a part of us,” Egan said. “You don’t forget emotions when you grow older. They become more sophisticated in some ways. We don’t stop telling stories, but we do look at more sophisticated stories that aren’t quite as simple as the ones that young children are most engaged by.”
While Neri is no longer writing the wildly creative comic books of third grade, she is now working on a dystopian novel.
“I stay true to what I like,” Neri said. “I’m not going to change that. Imagination is important, and I do think it changes, but it is essential to keep it.”
Natalie Guyette contributed to this article.