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Imagining: A Pathway to Learning

Whether teaching little ones is your preference or not, one can hardly dispute our responsibility as educators to these, our youngest visitors. It is aphoristic that the greater the dependency of the learner, the greater the importance of the educator. This may be one reason why classroom instructors who teach the earliest grades are often required to have more training than those who teach in high schools.

Young people are not miniature adults whose needs can be met simply by breaking down information into smaller bits and pieces. They are developing beings who learn differently from adults, and who are in the process of acquiring the skills, experiences, and attitudes that will determine the quality of their adulthood, as well as the resources they bring to it.

This issue of The Docent Educator is devoted to the teaching of “little ones” — children whose ages range from 3 to 9 — for it is at this early stage of human development that motivations for learning are established and lifelong impressions are created. An adult who may not remember any one specific incident that took place on a childhood visit to a museum, garden, or zoo, could probably trace his feelings about such an environment to the character of his first visit.

Anyone touring and teaching “little ones” ought to understand their cognitive traits and capabilities. For instance, they should know that these young people have yet to develop their full powers of visual discrimination and will find it difficult to isolate details. And, that the abbreviated attention spans of young children ensure that lessons which rely upon listening and observing will be less effective than those permitting activity and involvement.

In their text. Reaching Potentials: Appropriate Curriculum and Assessment for Young Children (1992. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.), authors Sue Bredkamp and Teresa Rosegrant state that, “Young children need to think out loud; prior to age 8, children do not have fully developed ‘private speech’ with which to think their thoughts; they need to articulate their thoughts verbally. In early childhood classrooms, if there isn’t much talking going on, there isn’t much thinking going on.” This offers us an additional reason why “little ones” learn best when participating, and why the children, rather than the educator, should be doing most of the talking.

Another important attribute of early childhood, according to educational theorist Jean Piaget, is that young children actively construct knowledge through repeated dynamic experiences (The Origins ofIntelligence in Children. 1952. New York: International Universities Press). This means that youngsters will learn best if introduced to one idea, reinforced repeatedly and in different ways, as opposed to encountering an aggregation of ideas or information. In other words, young children should be guided toward making the same discovery in several ways, or to finding that the same discovery is applicable to several things or situations.

Such cognitive characteristics and abilities of early childhood have profound implications for those who teach these visitors. They suggest that the very things that enthrall most adults about institutional collections — their potential to educate and fascinate through careful inspection; the variety of implications that can be derived, discussed, and debated; and the manner in which one’s understanding and appreciation for them can be broadened by listening to the insights of experts — are more likely to confuse and stunt the interest of “little ones” than to inspire them. Thus, teaching this audience requires educators to approach collections from a vantage point entirely different from their own.

Teaching this age group successfully requires more than simply knowing what “little ones” can’t do, however; it means understanding what they can, and will, do. And, one thing they can and will do is “make believe.” A healthy imagination is both a common, and important attribute of early childhood. When children use their imaginations they are engaging in more than mere play. They are strengthening the mental skills required for contemplating and problem-solving as adults. The ability to imagine becomes the mental pathway for future understanding, empathizing, projecting, conjecturing, hypothesizing, and creating.

Studies have shown that children who engage in lots of imaginative activities have a larger vocabulary, greater understanding of others, and tend to be more motivated and self-reliant. Teresa Amabile, professor of psychology at Brandeis University, is quoted as saying, ” [imagination] contributes to the happiness and well-being of the individual and is also an essendal part of society. Without this ability, human progress would not exist.”
Fortunately for educators, imagining is also a very productive way to impart information, stimulate thinking, and actively engage youngsters in the process of learning. By imagining, children can live in another country or time, gain insights into the feelings or actions of other people, and experience things that they have yet to encounter. Using the imagination to pretend or role play is among the most effective ways to enfranchise very young visitors into the world of museums, historic homes, zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums, and the like, which by their very nature are the domains of adults.

Imagining activities demand participation, addressing young children’s need for personal involvement and complementing their abbreviated attention spans. Also, when movement is incorporated, imagining can harness their bursts of physical energy.

Imagining activities are easy to execute. They demand no special equipment, nor do they require changes to current exhibitions or settings. They can be undertaken in any institutional arena, regardless of subject matter. All that is needed to initiate a child’s imagination are the words, “Let’s pretend.”

Imagining should be used for a purpose beyond pretending, however, and that purpose is to learn something about an institution’s collection. To effectuate learning through imagining, such activities must be consistent with the sophistication of the audience and match their ability to participate and comprehend.

Some imagining activities that can be adapted in their complexity include: Pretending to pack a bag to move West or to another country. What would they choose to bring and what would they have to leave behind? Pretending that paintings can make sounds. What sounds would they hear? What colors would have the loudest or softest sounds? Pretending to live during a time without electricity. What would they do for entertainment? What chores might they have? Pretending to be a statue or sculpture? How would they move if they suddenly came to life? Pretending to work at the museum, zoo, or park. What would they want to do? What would they want to take care of? Pretending to be an animal. How would they move? What sounds would they make? What plants would they prefer to hide or play in? Pretending to sense or experience things they cannot. What smells might they notice if they were in the painting? What sounds would they hear if they slept in this bedroom? What would a surface feel like if they could touch it?

Baseball legend, Casey Stengle, is credited with saying, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” That statement is as true as it is humorous. Among the ironies of teaching is that one can never know which facts and information young people will actually need for their individual lives or for living in a rapidly changing world. The best that educators can hope for is to impart skills and attitudes that allow young people to remain mentally flexible and that provide them with a broad base for continued learning so that future challenges and interests can be met resourcefully. These attributes are inextricably linked to many of the mental activities learned early in life through imagining.

To accomplish imagining activities with young children, a docent must call upon a bit of his or her own childhood, and leave a measure of adulthood behind. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. In fact, it may only be challenging the first time. Once one experiences the delight and the energy “little ones” put into imagining and pretending, an adult is usually able to suspend judgments about his or her own behavior and focus on the children’s. And, after all, should any of us ever be too old to play or to tap into the riches of our imaginations?

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Imagining: A Pathway to Learning,” The Docent Educator 3.2 (Winter 1993): 2-3.

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