Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Marjorie Taylor on the childhood imagination: “I have not seen a decline”

Although the inquiry at the heart of my research on imagination is framed around the idea that we are, collectively, experiencing a decline in our collective imagination, not everyone I have interviewed agrees.  Marjorie Taylor is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and author of ‘Imaginary Companions and the Children who Create Them’, and editor of the Oxford Book of the Development of Imagination. She researches the development of imagination and creativity, in particular on childhood imaginary friends, and also the relationships that adult fiction writers develop with characters in their novels.  Much of her work is conducted in the beautifully-named ‘Imagination Lab’.  She is on the editorial boards of the journals ‘Imagination, Cognition, and Personality’ and ‘The American Journal of Play’I started by asking Marjorie how she would assess the state of health of our collective imagination in 2018:


“I think it’s brilliant.  There are so many opportunities for engaging in imaginative activities that everybody takes advantage of, including adults as well as children.  Sometimes people worry about children’s imagination being not as well developed because of all the fantasy material they’re presented with, and all the scheduled time they have, but I haven’t seen any decline at all in the years that I’ve been interviewing children.

What for you is imagination, and how is it different from creativity?

I think of imagination very broadly.  I think of it as the capacity to transcend our current time, place and/or circumstance.  That includes things that maybe some people wouldn’t consider imaginative activities, like thinking about mulling over the past.  Whenever your mind sort of travels to a different place, that’s using your imagination as a tool.

Creativity I restrict to coming up with things that are novel, novel for you.  I see imagination broadly, and creativity being a part of that, when you are coming up with something that’s novel and appropriate for a particular purpose, or imagination can be really thinking about the future, thinking about the past.  Mulling over things that are going on, reliving or pre-living certain conversations, all those sorts of things.  As well as the activities that we often more sort of standardly think of as imaginative like pretend play.

Are children more imaginative than adults?                                              

A lot of people think so.  I’m not so sure.  Children do pretend a lot.  For some children it’s almost 24/7 activity.  Adults do that less so, but they are using their imagination when they are engaging in all kinds of fictional activities, like reading novels and thinking about novels and movies and all those things.  And also imagination is used when you are at work, when you’re envisioning your book for example, or at home trying to figure out how to make your money last until the end of the month.  All these things involve imagination.

Children do have some differences in that they are not sort of evaluating as they go along, the way that adults do.  They don’t have the inner critic that adults have and so they can just really be free to explore their imagination without evaluating it as they go along.

Marjorie Taylor.

Is it possible to measure how imaginative person A is in relation to person B and person C?  And is there any value in doing that?

That’s a really good question, and measurement issues are huge for pretty much any area, but imagination, first of all you have to define it and agree on a definition.  The way we look at it in the lab is we interview children about imaginative activities and we interview their parents and we cross-check, trying to figure out if what the children are telling us is something that reflects their everyday activities as opposed to something they make up on the spot.  But putting a number on imagination, that’s a tricky business.

But are there different ways that people have been trying to do that?  What’s the sort of state of play with that?

People have been measuring creativity for decades.  A lot of times the measurement of creativity boils down to a question like, “How many things can you think of to do with a brick?”  And then you come up with all these different things, and you’re evaluated on how unique those responses are.  And how many responses you come up with – so the fluidity of your ability to come up with responses to that question, and your ability to come up with something that other people don’t come up with, that’s unique.

That measurement, people’s responses to that unusual uses test does correlate with other things related to creativity.  On the other hand, it always makes me uncomfortable to say that a score in that test is a measurement of how creative you are.

Are we driving play out of kids’ lives, and what kind of adults do we produce when we do that?

Well children do have to have time to play, and we do schedule them up these days.  I mean some kids go from one lesson to the next lesson, to the next, and when they have free time, they immediately look at a screen of some sort and start watching a video or something like that.

Children do have to have some free time when they can use their imagination.  One might argue that free time to just do anything is a rare commodity, but like I said, I have not seen a decline when we just look at children’s imaginary companions, either how many children have them, or in just the creative things that children come up with when they are describing their pretend friends.

Also we’ve been doing research with older kids, with 8-10 year olds, looking at the creation of an imaginary world which is referred to as paracosm and we’ve been astounded by the creativity in what children are coming up with.  Looking at somebody’s score on the unusual uses test, the Torrence Test or something, I don’t know…  If it’s true that those scores are declining, I don’t see a decline in creativity in my lab, let’s put it that way.

Going back to your previous question, we think that there’s a real difference between thinking of purposes for manipulating the physical world, and thinking of the social world, and being creative in that realm.  We often use tests that involve people, thinking of how would the world be different if people had tails, that kind of thing.  That’s a question that we ask kids.  Or we start a story with two people and ask the children to finish it, and see how creative their responses are.

We found there often can be no relationship between children’s responses to those kinds of questions and the question of how many things can do you do with a brick.  Creativity is probably somewhat domain specific, although there may be some domain general stuff going on too.  It’s very complex, it depends what you’re thinking about, what your interests are.  You can be very creative within a particular interest which may not be about how you use a brick.

The team at the Imagination Lab.

What kind of adults do we produce if as children we don’t get to play and be imaginative as children, what kind of adults do we produce?

You know, children are going to play and be imaginative.  That’s just who they are.  That’s who people are.  A world in which children don’t have an imagination, I just can’t even… Even in situations where they’re less supported in play, they still do it. I have some friends who work in different cultures and they say there can be a lot less play in certain cultures, and that may be true, but in general children pretend.  They’re so inclined to do this from such an early age.  Like even when they are 2 years old, they start.

They trying to learn about the real world, right?  You’d think they’d really be focused on that, yet they are imagining a little dolphin that they pick off from the rug and carry around with them, or they pretend to go to sleep when they’re not sleepy and smile at their mother.  They’re constantly doing things and pretending about things that aren’t there, even though you would think the job of early childhood is to learn about the real world.  It’s just a very fundamental thing.

Look at how adults are so engaged in fiction.  That’s a whole part of the imaginary realm and when we think about all the novels we read, and the movies we go to, and how highly valued those are, just in terms of the pay cheques that are given to people who engage in them, that write and act, it’s just there’s a lot of fantasy material in our lives.  I don’t get this kind of decline.

I also think that online there are activities online that are increasingly a different way for children to engage in fantasy.  Look at all the video games.  Some of them are just shoot ‘em up, but a lot of them do have a fantasy component and there’s a lot of imaginative activities that are going on online.  Actually one of my former students, Naomi Aguiar, has been trying to figure out how children think about the entities they meet online.

Not necessarily an avatar because you’re controlling that, but you meet a virtual dog or something online, how do you conceptualise that entity and how do you see that in terms of a relationship that you might have with an online character that is controlled by artificial intelligence?  There’s a lot of new activities that are involving imagination that children are engaging in.  Children and adults.

What’s an Imagination Lab?  What goes on in an Imagination Lab?

Our bread and butter is talking to children about their imaginary friends because it’s something that we became obsessed with 20, 25 years ago now when we realised that just basic questions about imaginary companions weren’t well answered.  Like how many kids have them, what are imaginary friends like?  What are the children like?  What’s the developmental course?  What’s it related to?

We advertise and phone people based on birth records and people bring their children to our lab, and then we interview the parent, interview the child, in different rooms, and we just ask them questions.  Say something like, “Some friends are real, like the children that live on your street, the ones you play with, and some friends are pretend friends, the ones that are make believe, that you pretend are real.  Do you have a pretend friend?”  And we just see what they say.

Then we ask them questions about it, and we ask the parent.  Then we cross check the information and follow up with both the parent and the child to make sure we’re all on the same page.  Sometimes the child will say, “Yes, I have a pretend friend named Joel”, and the parent will say, “No, she doesn’t have a pretend friend”.  So we ask, “Well, do you know anyone named Joel?  Who’s Joel?” Because sometimes children might tell us about a real friend, or something like that.

Or if the parent says, “Yeah, she has a pretend friend named Olivia”, and the child says, “No, I don’t have a pretend friend”, we might ask the parent , why is she saying no?  And the parent in that case will say, “Well actually she calls it her ghost sister, not pretend friend”.  So she might be confused about the terminology.  So we go back and ask, “Do you have a ghost sister?”  And she’ll say, “Oh yes, that’s Olivia.  My ghost sister.  She’s just like me, she’s just the same size as me”.

We do that and then we give children lots of different kinds of tests.  Some just to take a look at their vocabulary development, or their inhibitory control.  But a lot of them on creativity.  Asking them to complete stories.  Asking them questions like, “How would the world be different if people had tails?”  We get them to make collages.  We do a lot of things like that to get a sense of how easy is it for them to generate content.

Another test we’ve used is we’ve give them a play phone and say, “This is a play phone.  Can you pretend to call a friend of yours?”  Not a pretend friend, a real friend, because we want everybody, not just kids who have pretend friends, to do this.  Then we look at how easy is it for them to just get on the phone and start talking.  Some kids they immediately do that.

They get on there and say, “Hi, can you come round to my birthday party?  It’s Saturday.  This is what I want, and I love you”.  And you know, that kind of thing.  Other kids will go, “Uh, she’s not home.  She didn’t answer the phone”.  Or that kind of thing.  It’s harder for them to come up with content.  Or they’ll say, “Hi, how are you?  Goodbye”.

So we look at all those things and try and get a sense of what’s going on with the children.  And lately we’ve been interviewing kids about their pretend worlds, which is kind of a difficult job because the pretend worlds have often been worked on for years, and so there’s a lot of detail there.  Also they’re very idiosyncratic.  So getting to the right information – if you ask too many questions that aren’t relevant to a particular world, you’re going to lose the child, so we show them a big list of all the different things that some children have talked about with respect to their paracosm, their imaginary world, and say which ones are important for your world?

For some kids language is really important and they’ve come up with a new language in their world.  For other kids that’s not something they’re interested in.  They are more interested in inter-planetary travel or religion or geography or something like that.  Then we ask the kids to tell us about their imaginary worlds and it’s amazing to see what they do.  Often with the paracosm work it’s really kind of basic.  How many kids have them?  Because for example, Abixia, an imaginary world that we interviewed a boy about, it just had so much detail.  It had its own religion, its own geography.

The inhabitants were soldier cats and the God was Ot, a horse.  So cruelty to horses was punishable by death or torture on Abixia.  He spent a lot of time thinking about the currency and the history.  It was set in the 1940s.  It goes on and on and on, the detail of just imagining this other world.  So we document that.  We have a good time.

Okay.  I was reading a thing recently about Snapchat and this idea that more and more people communicate just by sending each other pictures and with emojis.  Do you think there are impacts on our imagination as we move away from the written word?  Does it impact at all?  Do we lose something if we move away from the written word?

That’s an interesting question.  People are always worried about what’s going to happen with new technology.  People worried about books when they were created, when people started to read, that that would be bad for their memories.  So with Snapchat, there’s a tethering that happens.  It’s a sense of being connected, having this sense of yourself as being so connected to your friends wherever they are.  I think that Snapchat and other technologies like that really promote that.  Sherry Turkle has worried about what that means for imagination and has maybe a darker view of what’s going to happen there than I do.

If you had been elected the president in November and you had run on a platform of “Make America Imaginative Again” rather than “Make America Great Again”, that your priority was to make everyone in the country as imaginative as they could possibly be, what would you do in your first 100 days in office?

Well I’d focus on children, early childhood, that’s for sure.  I guess “Make America Imaginative Again”… I think we are imaginative.  You know, that’s a crazy question.  For me, I would like to see lots of emphasis on early childhood education.  Lots of emphasis on promoting the development of young children and making it so that parents have access to good day care, that there’s good parental leave policies, that children are being fed, that they’re not hungry in school.  I mean if you’re hungry, that’s not a good way to go through the day, and that’s not a good way to learn.  So that would be what I would focus on if I was President.


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