Children’s Imagination: creativity under our noses
Review by Catherine Reding
Sightlines Initiative
 September 2014

This thoughtful, inspiring and beautifully presented book, particularly intended for families, sets out to illustrate to adults just how creative children are and can be. It is a passionate celebration both of children’s potential for creative endeavour, and of the role of adults in supporting and nurturing them. Ursula Kolbe uses her observations of children (aged between one-and-a-half and ten) at play showing instances of their curiosity, imagination and creative thinking; her thoughtful analyses help the reader to understand the processes underlying children’s thoughts and actions. The book is divided into two parts, exploring two important questions: firstly, “What sparks children’s imagination?” and secondly, “What can we do to nourish and support their creative thinking?”

What sparks children’s imagination?

Ursula Kolbe gathers her thoughts on this question into five categories: “found surprises”, “enticing spaces”, “together in the moment”, “graphic exploration” and finally a section called “nothing is born of nothing” in which she outlines the idea of continual transformation of ideas in sometimes unexpected ways.

Through the examples shared we can see how even some of the most seemingly mundane objects can have potential for transformation and meaning-making, for example used takeaway containers from the recycling bin being transformed into a scary crocodile.

“Found objects are full of possibilities. Not only intriguing to the eye and hand, they speak to the imagination. They present challenges. Running through each of the anecdotes seems to be an unspoken question: What can I do with this?”says Ursula. I would add another question, “And what meanings does this have for me?” as to me the children don’t just seem to be exploring the possibilities of the object – they are creating and developing their own meanings as they go.

Some of the words used to describe children, and their feelings, dispositions and endeavours include:

playful
excitement
pride
challenge
passion
intense concentration
desire for mastery engrossed
curiosity joy

Some of the words used to describe children, and their feelings, dispositions and endeavours include: attracted triumphant empowering persist wonder magical inspired engaged spontaneous resourceful freedom collaborative reinvent improvisation discovery ingenuity.

Presumably in an effort to show many different facets and examples of creativity, some of the anecdotes are rather brief, and it is not often possible for the reader to understand them within their wider context. For example, in the vignette of 10 year old Matthew building a house from scrap materials the reader isn’t told if this came out of a visit from Ursula to the house with a bag of materials, or whether he already played with scrap materials at home. We don’t know whether he has been interested in construction before and what previous forms this interest has taken. The notion of a child thoroughly engaged in a challenge of physical construction is very clearly seen, though. The examples which speak to me the most are the ones in which we hear from the children’s parents, discover something of the wider context of the child’s/children’s interests, and are able to see how an idea has emerged or developed over time.

Creative Companionship

Many of the illustrations in the book are borne from a context of child and adult in companionship. I am especially interested in the ideas of the adult “standing back” and being an “observer” of children’s play which are mentioned several times in the book. What is really happening here? Are we really just standing back and observing? What is the balance between giving space for children and their ideas, and becoming disconnected or distant? Many (most?) children in the company of an adult in this context will show their desire to communicate their curiosities, desires and discoveries with their older companion – young children especially. Children draw us into their world. In an example with a one-year old girl playing with cellophane Ursula describes her participation which included attentiveness and facial expressions accompanied by some occasional words.

Later she raises the issue of striking a balance between offering our adult skills when children are disheartened or stuck, and being able to trust in children’s own resourcefulness, reminding us of the “satisfaction of finding their own solutions”. Susan Whelan offers a parent’s perspective: “As a parent, it can be difficult to let go – not to feel that we have to be constantly guiding, offering suggestions…”. One of the most helpful passages on this topic is when Ursula describes what she calls “a responsive presence”: “I try to do what researcher, educator and artist Joan Matthews has described as a ‘special kind of nothing’. It’s a largely non-verbal attentiveness and it works magic in both directions. I become more in tune with the children and more aware of their potential, while my attention encourages them to persist in whatever they’re doing far more effectively than words of praise ever could.”

Graphic Exploraton

As an artist herself, Ursula’s knowledge and interest in visual arts really shines through. She shares some fascinating insights into children’s aesthetic and graphic explorations which would be of great interest to artists and educators working with children as well as parents.

Summary

The book not only shares Ursula Kolbe’s thinking but invites us to do our own thinking and wondering, both through our re-interpretations of the examples shared in the book, and in the questions generated for us in our own lives with children.

The whole book emanates a spirit of optimism and celebration, basking in the freedom and joy of the imagination. “It can be whatever you want” says Timothy, aged eight. And that’s what’s so exciting – when we are truly in a creative process we can’t know what is going to happen.

Although there are some examples of children playing out-of-doors, I do feel the book is missing a more detailed enquiry into outdoor play, especially in the section on ‘space’.

The voices of parents, and the focus on children’s experiences in their home environment, helps to make this an engaging and accessible book for families, showing how possible it is to be a companion for children in their creativity. Ursula Kolbe explains that she has steered away from less ‘usual’ household materials such as clay deliberately in this particular book, with the issue of accessibility in mind. I can understand the reasoning behind this but would have loved to see some examples of children playing with some more unusual materials and places.

Most of the activities in the book feel very safe’ to me – the role of adventurous experiences as catalysts for creativity are not explored here. I also felt there were very many examples of children playing by themselves (or at least just with an accompanying adult), and would have been very interested in more examples of sibling and friendship group play.

I hope that this book finds its way into the hands of parents who, seeing their own children brimming with curiosity and imagination, would like some guidance and encouragement in how to respond. I hope it helps to give parents the confidence that children don’t need expensive clever toys to be creative, that they don’t need hours of art lessons, or models or instructions to follow. That what they do need is the nurturing care of adults willing to give them time to dream, to wonder, to explore and create, to try things out and make mistakes; and for those adults to recognise just how inventive, resourceful and creative their children really are.

To find out more about the book and the author, you can visit Ursula Kolbe’s website at http://www.ursulakolbe.com