“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
At bedtime the kids increasingly enjoy getting stuck into ‘chapter’ books (Fin is really enjoying Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie & the Chocolate Factory’ at the moment for instance) however every now and then they will still reach down a ‘picture’ book from the shelf and happily immerse themselves in the brilliance of imaginary worlds.
At six they’ve not yet – not quite yet – become constrained by the parameters of reality and will still happily conflate this-and-that from their imaginations, with overheard information, glimpses from TV and their own local world to create a single, vivid composite reality.
Reading ‘Time to get out of the bath, Shirley’ by John Burningham to Joe this week put me in mind of the thought-provoking final chapter in Robert Macfarlane’s latest book ‘Landmarks’ in which he – with his usual flare for clarity and precision – describes the gorgeous fluidity of a child’s world – it’s weave of logic-defying imagination and rare substance:
“To young children, of course, nature is full of doors – is nothing but doors, really – and they swing open at every step. A hollow in a tree is the gateway to a castle. An ant hole in dry soil leads to the other side of the world. A stick-den is a palace. A puddle is the portal to an undersea realm. To a three- or four-year-old, ‘landscape’ is not backdrop or wallpaper, it is a medium, teeming with opportunity and volatile in its textures. […] What we bloodlessly call ‘place’ is to young children a wild compound of dream, spell and substance: place is somewhere they are always in, never on.” p315
“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.”
“Children see magic because they look for it.”
Burningham’s story, as I’m sure most of you will know, is told as much in pictures as words. Words are a peripheral construct of an adult-orientated world and frame the narrow concerns of a mum chivvying her daughter along at bath time. Shirley, the eponymous heroine never utters a word, indeed never outwardly shows any emotion at all that might give away the amazing adventures she’s living as she ventures down the plughole on her rubber duck to a world of kings and queens and knights on horseback.
Burningham’s pictures have a rare brilliance, a vividness and an innocence, and more’s said in the ‘silent’ images than is ever uttered by ‘the adult’ as she picks up clothes and gets on with the chores.
The thing is, and this is perhaps one of Robert Macfarlane’s points, children, like Shirley, are utterly capable of holding in play multiple worlds, of accepting what’s going on without the straitjacket of empirical reality. Children are adept at:
“[…] undertaking a ‘kind of fantastic travelling, in which worlds slip easily around each other, where there are soft boundaries between what is real and what is remembered, and each place in front of use is somewhere else too’.” p 325
whilst we adults are seemingly, increasingly incapable of naturally merging self/place/memory/reality & imagination into a viable whole.
“Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.”
“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.”
“Looking back, I guess I used to play-act all the time. For one thing, it meant I could live in a more interesting world than the one around me.”
It seems to me that we’ve lost a lot, and perhaps there’s a lot we might still learn from the children around us if we give them a chance. Perhaps we should be less ready to preach, and more ready to listen to what they have to say?
After all when did you last see a wolf in the woods or slide down a rainbow; fall down a rabbit hole and find Australia; or talk to the man in the moon as you rocket into outer space?
“Our imagination flies — we are its shadow on the earth.”