Why is a strong imagination essential for children… and anyone else in the human race?

The Collins English Dictionary defines imagination as “producing ideas, especially mental images, of what is not present or has not been experienced.” It sounds like the very description of escapism.

But what we actually have here is the main faculty that makes human beings stand out from the rest of the animal kingdom. Without it, we would have no science, no history, and little social cohesion at all. Plus, the imagination holds the key to unlocking our full learning potential – and I’ll explain how in a short while…

First though, a little background… When mankind was little better than an ape, a terrifying encounter would cause a “fight or flight” reaction. As our brains evolved, though, we started planning for such encounters, working out how we would fight – or escape.

Doing so was a major breakthrough for our species. It meant we had become capable of picturing events that weren’t yet happening, in order to prepare for when they did happen. We had started imagining.

Much, much later, Charles Babbage imagined a machine that would be able to produce the results of vast numbers of calculations incredibly quickly – and the modern computer was born.

Nearly a century and a half later, Elvis Presley imagined what it would be like to stand on a stage and sing to rapturous fans.

So the imagination helps us plan for the future – but it also helps us recreate the past. When you have a memory, your brain doesn’t recall every sensory detail. To do so would make your brain run out of hard disk space! Instead, you store snippets – and then expand on them with your mind’s eye by linking those snippets together.

For instance: when remembering a day at the beach 3 years ago with a friend, you might add the visual concept of the same beach from your last visit 2 months ago with a concept of your friend from yesterday. You won’t recall every individual stone either – your brain will simply spread the concept “stone” across the image in your mind’s eye.

Even mathematics is remembered in this way. Words like “square” and “hexagon” form images in the mind, while equations are miniature narratives: a beginning (“x”), a middle (“plus y”) and an end (“equals z”). And the most basic definition of a narrative is a progression of concepts.

 The imagination is just as important now as it is then and soon. No-one can read another’s mind. But you can imagine what others are thinking – and interpreting factors such as tone, body language and actions can make your predictions even more accurate.

As a result, in social situations the imagination can help us to be considerate, and encourages us to concentrate on our interactions with others. To put it another way, imagination is the root of empathy.

But perhaps the most crucial element of the imagination is… it’s personal. The mind’s eye of a visual learner will conjure up exquisitely detailed pictures. Audio learners will focus on creating sound effects. Kinaesthetic learners will be mentally animating the action of the tale, while tactile learners will be getting right up close to the objects of their imaginings.

All-in-all, then, a strong imagination improves our ability to…

1) plan for the future – envision the outcome of difficult decisions, form ambitions, generate hypotheses…

2) remember our past – build memories, link events, understand actions taken…

3) work better now – concentrate better, communicate better, consider each other better…


4) learn on our own terms, so unlocking the full potential of our learning.

The Snail Tales website has more articles on how oral storytelling can strengthen the imagination of your children, so it’s ready to improve their vocabulary, be motivated to read and write, cope better in social interactions, and much, much more. You will also find free videos performed by Snail Tales in collaboration with the Oxford Reading Tree. Why not take a look at www.snailtales.org/schools