Imagine That! Encouraging Creativity in Children
It’s the beginning of summer — time to don shorts and tee-shirts, slather on the sunscreen, and go play outside! Like most five-year-olds, Bryson and his brothers love to frolic outdoors.
One day, they hatched a plan to walk by themselves to the neighborhood park to play. “I’ll ask Mom!” said Bryson. Mom, who was busy folding laundry, explained that Bryson and his brothers were too young to walk to the park by themselves. Perhaps she could take them tomorrow, but for now, they must stay in their yard. When Bryson’s brothers asked about their mother’s verdict, Bryson sighed. “Mom killed that idea.”
Bryson’s brothers understood this statement immediately, even though they may not have heard the word “killed” used in this way before.
Understanding of metaphor is an incredible tool; although we can program computers to solve complex mathematical equations, we cannot program a computer to understand metaphor at the level of even very young children. In fact, our capacity to learn and understand metaphor peaks around the age of five, and declines throughout childhood, seeing a brief spurt in adolescence before continuing on the downward slope through adulthood.
Although artists, writers, and storytellers exercise their metaphor muscle into adulthood as a way of communicating with their audiences, metaphor becomes a lost tool for many. We use metaphors that we’ve already learned, but we rarely expand our learning of new representational language beyond our formative years. So how do we keep this amazing tool strong?
The role of reading
Reading is a fantastic way to exercise that metaphor muscle as children grow beyond their preschool years. As children’s brain functions become more sophisticated, parents and educators can expose them to cognitive metaphor, in which an entire literary work represents another, more abstract concept. This theory is based on the idea that metaphor isn’t merely a way of speaking; it’s a way of thinking.
Young children’s books are rife with cognitive metaphor: The Little Engine that Could chugs up a hill that represents life’s obstacles; Dr. Seuss stories like The Lorax and Green Eggs and Ham use conceptual allegory woven within an entertaining story.
Older children delight in Roald Dahl’s classic tales of magical realism; kids identify with Matilda and James with his giant peach because, although their situations are fantastic, they represent life choices and obstacles faced every day.
The format of reading and storytelling, as opposed to movies or television, is a better tool to teach children basic analysis of abstract symbolism. The child is forced to imagine what a character and his/her environment looks like; children often draw on their own experiences to fill in the aesthetic aspects of the story, which makes it easier for them to view the characters’ situations through their own eyes. Become familiar with what your child is reading and ask questions about the characters’ ways of handling situations. All children can probably think of a time when they had to face a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, and had to repeat “I think I can, I think I can,” all the way to the top of the figurative hill. Simple questions like these can hone your child’s metaphor muscles.
Very young children look at the world with wide eyes, learning something new at every turn. As they grow, it’s important to know how to keep that cycle of learning going. Metaphor is central to how we communicate and understand each other and see the world. As our schools struggle to teach 21st century learners, how can we parents help our children keep the metaphor muscle in shape? Turn off the TV and the in-car DVD player and read and tell stories. It is a significant part of the role we signed up for when we became parents and … it is so much fun. Imagine that!
Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. Michael Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.storymann.com), a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura. Michael Mann, 2010, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.