January 19, 2012


"But let them have tales of the imagination, scenes laid in other lands and other times, heroic adventures, hairbreadth escapes, delicious fairy tales in which they are never roughly pulled up by the impossible--even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” –Charlotte Mason

What is imagination? Why is imagination so important in education? How do you develop it in young scholars? These are questions I have been pondering. The research I have been doing to find the answers has been delightful, insightful and inspiring. I realized maybe for the first time that Charlotte Mason’s methods all have an over arching goal to them….to develop the child’s imagination.

What is Imagination?

Imagination: The ability of the mind to form pictures of things that are not present or real.
It is the world inside of our minds. It is a place that we can see, hear, and smell things remembered, things invented. It is a place to put one idea together with another. It is where we create and invent. It is also a place to retreat to when the world around is unpleasant or cruel. Sara in the story the little princess survived the terrible shock of her father’s supposed death but imagining. Here is a portion of chapter eight In the Attic, when Ermengarde and Sara have just become friends after Sara troubles began. They are talking about Sara’s troubles of losing her father, her position in the school and becoming a maid now living in the attic.

“I don’t see any good in them,(the troubles)” said Ermengarde stoutly.

“Neither do I-to speak the truth,” admitted Sara frankly. “But, I suppose there might be good in things, even if we don’t see it. There might-doubtfully be good in Miss Minchin.”

Ermengarde looked around the attic with a rather fearsome curiosity.

“Sara,” she said. “do you think you can bear living here?”

Sara looked around also.

“If I pretend it’s different, I can,” she answered. “Or if I pretend it is a place in a story.”

She spoke slowly, her imagination was beginning to work for her, it had nor worked for her at all since her troubles had come upon her. She had felt as if it had been stunned.”
What if little Sara could not have begun to imagine again? How dreary life might have become for her.
Why is imagination so important in education?

This is a much harder question for me to answer. Then I thought…what if we were made without the ability to imagine? No pictures would form in our minds when words were read from a page. Thus no books would have been written. We would know no stories. We would not be able connect ideas from one subject to another. We would not be able to understand math notations. How would we do math? History would be completely lost to us. And then further on outside of education, what if we could not imagine like little Sara did? We would not have a place to go to when troubles over come us. There would be no inventions. How would we know God since he is not visible? Or have faith in things unseen? We must conclude that we were designed to imagine. We were designed to believe in things we can not see. We were designed to put ideas together in our minds. It is part of being human. And if a child is a person as CM says then it is important that we cultivate this aspect of thier being. So.....

How do we develop imagination in our young scholars?

Just below is a rough, off the cuff list from my various readings trying to nail down practical ways I can be cultivating a healthy imagination in my three boys. I wanted to be aware also of the big and small ways I may be stunting their imagination, so there are two lists.

What cultivates imagination                            What stunts imagination

Living books                                                       too many toys
Solitude/free time                                                 television and DVD’s
Open ended questions                                         a busy schedule
Asking questions                                                  busy work, ruts
Nature                                                                  video games
Handicrafts                                                          dreaming about ones self
Games                                                                 sermonizing a reading
Narration                                                             the teacher talking too much
Wondering aloud                                                  telling things that can be discovered
Encouraging thoughtful observation                       hurried lessons
Activities where the brain works                            passive work
Executing his own ideas                                         following your ideas
Independence                                                        dependence
Relying on his own minds                                       giving answers instead of asking questions
Raw materials + time                                              indifferent teachers
Looking outward                                                   looking inward
Painting pictures for the mind                                 no inertia
Discovering of new ideas                                       going over the same ground again
Providing a banquet of ideas rich and varied           spoon fed doses of facts
Finding relationships between ideas                        unit studies
Encouragement                                                      criticism
Having direct experience with something                 not requiring memorization
Giving him meaty ideas                                           avoiding structure in learning
Mastering the grammar of everything

From these two lists, you may see what occurred to me, that CM’s methods, if used as she prescribes them, will no doubt lead to a well cultivated imagination. I also noticed something else, and that is that imagination is NOT exclusive of discipline or structure. Note the above points in the list: mastering the grammar of everything, not requiring memorization, avoiding structure in learning. In Anthony Esolen’s fascinating book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

He writes,
“If that seems merely absurd, you have never beheld the serpentine belt on a recently manufactured car—a belt that turns the fan, the alternator, the power steering, the water pump, and so forth. Goldberg's machines were wildly imaginative, really a gleeful celebration of the spirit of invention. In more recent times, Nick Park of Wallace and Gromit fame has revived that spirit, with Wallace sliding off his tilting bed into his trousers and through a trap door in the bedroom, down to the kitchen table below, where robot arms slap a shirt over his head and half a sweater on each arm. The Coyote in the old Road Runner cartoons was a failed Wallace, always purchasing some absurd heap of junk from the ever-present Acme Company—magnetized iron bird seed pellets, jet propelled roller skates—only to find the physics of the machine turn against him, causing
projecting ledge of a cliff to fall on his head, or something similarly disconcerting. None of this playfulness is possible without a deep sense of structure—without a skeleton upon which to hang one's welter of experience.”

“Structure: “grammar” that orders every part in its appropriate place—is important not only for the physical sciences, but for every kind of intellectual endeavor. It allows us to do more than weave a fancy from the bits and pieces of our private experience. We can, by the power of structure, weave a whole artistic universe.”  -Anthony Esolen Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child
So it seems imagination is not a freeing or unfettering of ALL restraints to flit about at your own fancy. It is helped along as well by structures. Some structures that Mr. Esolen mentioned in were: memorization, learning the grammar of things, detail work, mastering something, hard work. Also structures like those Charlotte Mason advocated; Life is a discipline, habits, perfect execution, attention, obedience etc. also then lends to the cultivating of a strong and vibrant imagination.

In our homeschool we have some good things in place, but this study tells me there is much more to be learned. I haven't yet completed Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, but I certainly will. It is fascinating to learn more about this wonderful tool for education.


  1. Interesting. I enjoyed reading that, but had one question. Why did you include unit studies on the stunted list? Our unit studies lead us down so many fascinating trails, and keep our minds always turning and asking questions. I think the imagination is fostered through unit studies and all the great books because of what we're studying.

  2. Cindy I am so glad you asked! I wondered if anyone would when I wrote out the list. I have never used unit studies so I am happy to have your expert comments here. I added it to the list for two reasons: Because CM says in her writings that units studies make the connections for the child when she wants the child to do that for him or herself. The science of relations is partly what the imagination does. So if it is done for you you are not active in using your own mind to make the connections yourself. Also in the Ten ways to destroy imagination in your child, the author also mentioned unit studies as being a hinderance to developing imgiation. I simply added it to the list based on thise tow references. However that said, if it is working great for your family then keep on using them. You, in the end, are the expert for your own homeschool. Happy unit studying. Glad you commented.

  3. This was a reassuring post that a CM education is really so wonderful! I love the way you listed out the ways to grow a child's imagination. Thank you!

  4. I think unit studies can develop the imagination when they are a collection of living books and activities centered on ideas.I think Charlotte mason often grouped novels around the history being studied.However,the danger is in doing activities that are similar to rote seat work.Charlotte Mason expects children to think for themselves.Some of the best activities in my house have been the ones initiated by my kids in response to something we have been reading.
    Kathy S.

  5. I think another detriment to unit studies is just the amount of time they
    take;both in preparation and the doing.By reading and narrating you can fit a
    wide variety of lessons into your school day.In the CM method lessons are about 20-30 minutes long and alternate according to subject matter.Perhaps doing a math lesson ,then poetry ,then science,followed by some exercise .
    The idea being to engage different areas of the brain during the lessons to avoid fatigue.
    Sarah, your blog is lovely ! Kathy S.

  6. You are welcome Erica! Thanks for leaving a comment. I enjoyed getting to know you a bit via your blog.

    Kathy thank you for your comments. I think many different methods for homeschooling can be adjusted to weave the CM methods into them. In fact Charlottee herself said that once you have the goal in sight everything becomes a tool towards education. I prefer to remain pure to her ideas alone because the more I have read into them I see wisdom I missed the first time around. I have found that there is more to the details and the method than I realized. What I glossed over is actually important. Thus far her ideas do work for us.
    In this discussion on Imagination the important thing I discovered was that I must not waste any oppertunity to allow my child to do his own thinking. Many things are tempting to do that would usurp this. Unit studies may or may not. In CM's day, educators misused the unit study to make connections between subjects FOR the children In doing this they lost an oppertunity to let the child do this kind of thinking for himself and thus develope the unique voice and interests that God has placed in every person. Also the imagination. I have found, that the less they own the learning the less they do it, and enjoy it. I think unit studies properly handled can be CM tools when the educator understands the aim of her methods. Imagination is deveolped when the student uses his mind to think.