In the schoolyard: R.I.P. Here lies imagination

“My legs have hiccups.” That’s how my daughter described muscle twitches at age three.

“There a melted rainbow on that truck.” That’s her four-year-old description of a colorful array of fuzzy, blended images.

“It’s the same sky over Milwaukee as in Michigan. God just spreads it over us all like jelly.” Age five.

Often, kids aren’t even trying to be creative, funny, or profound. They merely try to piece the world together according to their limited understanding and vocabulary.

Out of the mouths of babes . . . things my kids said:

• ŸWindshield wipers were “swish-swashers” (3)
Ÿ• ŸCrunchy autumn leaves were “corn flakes” (3)
• ŸUsing the scraper on the car was “shaving the window” (4)
• ŸWhen her tummy hurt, looking for relief, she said: “I wish I could be a balloon and you could pop me.” (age 3)
• ŸWhen I poured too much cereal in the bowl: “You just hunked a lot out.” (3)
• ŸA tickle in the throat before coughing: “My mouth is buzzing.” (4)
• ŸGesundheit! “That’s a fireworks sneeze.” (4)
• ŸOn a windy fall day, “The leaves are playing Ring around the Rosy and Catch.” Or “The flags are wagging their tails.” (5)
• ŸAt the zoo’s fish tank, looking at a school of fish: “They look about 2nd grade.” (6)

See? Kids naturally make up similes and metaphors. Make imaginative connections.

If this isn’t proof that we’re born creative, I don’t know what is.

Every child, seeing the world afresh, is full of wonder, questions, and unique observations. All four of my kids had them.

These quotes are the creative things all kids say before the imagination is schooled out of them.

The death of imagination starts early.

It was worse in the 1960s when education employed drills, rote memorization, and shaming as the main learning techniques. Nowadays, teachers and parents are more aware of different learning styles. We’re told to give options, to encourage innovative thinking and problem-solving. We’re told to avoid saying no.

“Every child is an artist.
The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
–Pablo Picasso

Photo credit: SeRGioSVoX on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

For me, education’s attempt to kill my imagination started in kindergarten. I remember the incident vividly. Mrs. Konkle (alias) told us to draw the U.S. flag on our 12” x 18” papers, and fill the entire page.

Let’s see, there were at least 25 kids, so that meant we’d end up with 25 identical flags.

But I didn’t want to make what everyone else was drawing. Why did we need 25 of them?

I’d already grasped the stars and stripes concept, so I wanted to draw a picture of the flag on a pole, surrounded by serviceman, hands on hearts. I was going for the emotional impact. (Thanks to Mom for passing along her patriotism.) I was very involved with my drawing, very pleased with how it was turning out.

I got as far as the flag, pole, and third guy when the teacher said, “No, Laura, you’re not following instructions. I want you to draw just one big flag.” She turned the paper over to the blank side. “Now start over.”

I was stunned. And devastated. I was only five, after all. Is it any wonder why the educational system has turned out millions of people who think they aren’t creative?

Fortunately, that doesn’t stop everybody, and it didn’t stop me. I have my 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Haan, to thank for that. But more on her later.

Is there a time in your early schooling where a teacher (or anybody) stomped on your grand idea? How did you deal with it?

Or share a humorous observation from one of your own children!

Please add your comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,


P.S. Coming soon: An author whose story worlds are steeped in the Old West or WWII history, some inspired by her ancestors’ lives

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19 thoughts on “In the schoolyard: R.I.P. Here lies imagination

  1. Coming from the cookie cutter era in education, I vowed not to be that kind of teacher, but one where students limitations were those own imaginations. It was difficult for many of them to think for themselves because they were so used to being told what to do. The ironic thing is that even today, when I’m working with teachers, many of them would rather be told what to do rather than use their own imaginations. Why do you think this is true? Is it easier to be told what to do than to be creative in your own right? Maybe there is a fear of failure or of people being judgmental. What do you think?

    1. Good question, Brad. I think for me, there’s a huge side of me that wants to be creative, but I also want to know my parameters. I don’t want to go all crayola and then find out it needed to be a black and white. Or write a two-act play and discover you wanted a limirick.
      I mentioned my kindergarten teacher below and her tight expectations, but I also had an art teacher who believed you could never make a mistake in art, so she wouldn’t let us use pencils. It was SO frustrating because I would spend all this time trying to draw something beautiful, but no one ever understood it. I desperately wanted that art teacher to help me get the creativity on to the paper that I saw in my head.

      1. Oh, my! Using a pen would definitely stifle my creativity in art. No pencils or erasers? That would freeze me up to think that I couldn’t change anything, even with the “no mistake” philosophy. In terms of writing, imagine having to write something in its final form with the very first words you put on the paper (or on the screen). I’m not sure too many people could even do that! I’m constantly writing and rewriting as I go. It’s probably worse for kids trying to draw, if they have no confidence.

    2. Fear of failure and judgment is definitely a factor, Brad. But where does that come from? One possibility . . . workbooks! Anybody have any thoughts about those workbook pages we had to fill out as kids for math, spelling, English, social studies, and science? The workbook is one of those “cookie cutter era” features.

      1. Laura, you are right on target. Unfortunately, those workbooks/worksheets are alive and well (maybe not so well!!!!). As I travel throughout our school district evaluating student engagement, I am shocked with the number of kids who are filling in worksheets. The looks of anguish boredom on their faces tell this whole story! In those classrooms, however, where students are working on projects, in small groups, getting ideas from each other, and testing out their own ideas, well that is where synergy lies!

  2. As a former second and third grade teacher, I saw students who began a creative project without hesitation while others had much difficulty taking the first step. It could have been the difference between the popcorn poppper and slow cooker approach (see previous blog post) or possibly it was the fear of failure, not being “good enough” or perfectionism syndrome. As the year progressed I usually saw children grow and flourish in their creativity as they felt more safe to explore. Creativity and imagination…how much is nature vs. nurture?

    1. Safety would make all the difference, I think. If kids don’t have to fear the teacher’s or other kids’ responses, they’re free to experiment, and even “fail.” It probably also depends on how “failure” is defined and handled. And you’re right, not everybody comes up with ideas right away. Then there’s the perfectionism issue. Why do you think you saw that as early as 2nd and 3rd grade?

  3. I had a wonderful kindergarten teacher. I learned a lot.
    But in the realm of creativity? Well, I guess I improved my perfectionism with her. I remember Presidents’ Day. She gave us pictures of Lincoln and Washington. Just their heads. Nothing below the neck. I colored the picture carefully, but didn’t know what to do once the neck ended, so I just colored some skin-colored lines straight down. She made me do it over.
    This time, I drew a line straight across the end of the neck and colored the heads again. “That’s not what happens with heads,” she scolded. “They aren’t just cut off.”
    So I colored it a third time. I don’t have any idea what I did this time. Perhaps I faded it out? She didn’t make me do it over. But whether that was because I finally did it “right” or because she gave up, I don’t know.
    No worries. It didn’t scar me or anything. Not at all 😉

    1. How frustrating! That could shut a child down. Maybe this speaks to the idea of having parameters but freedom to make choices within them. One teacher might give all the rules and criteria; another might give free reign. But maybe the solution is somewhere in between?

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