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Can imagination be used as a learning tool?

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We envision a world in which all young people lead creative, purposeful lives.

How are you?

You might say, “I’m good, thank you!” or “I’m a little tired, but that’s okay.” Many of us respond similarly to this habitual question. But does it show how we really feel? Probably not. So, let’s try something else.

If the way you feel right now was a weather pattern, what would it be?

Would it be a gentle breeze, flowing over a vast open field of grass, sun-kissed and warm? Or would it be a brewing thunderstorm, with dark, heavy clouds bursting at the seams, ready to pour?

These metaphors convey the quality of your mood in deeper, more personalized ways instead of words like sad, or calm because we all feel them differently. It offers us a chance to check with ourselves. That is what imagination does for us. It opens the door to engaging all parts of our brain – memory, emotion, attention, tactile and more – and makes us aware of the nuances of our experience. This is not to say that we need to now talk about our feelings in terms of weather patterns, but by tapping into our imagination, our experiences become more relevant and meaningful.

A study conducted by Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director at UPenn’s Positive Psychology Center, shows that activating our imagination involves both deliberate focus, as well as large scale brain activity or ‘wandering’ that happens when the brain isn’t engaged in a specific task. It involves both divergent and convergent thinking. This strengthens our creative thinking, helping us solve problems in unique ways. That’s a critical 21st-century skill!

How do we use imagination as a tool to invoke lasting learning? Through our framework – I-P-C.

Imagination: From the moment a participant walks in, we make constant invitations to their imagination – creative name tags, check-in questions, theater improv games, songs, visual art activities and much more. Why? This encourages the divergent thinking or the wandering of our minds, where our uniqueness rests – our personalities, emotions, quirks, and ideas. We invite the rich inner worlds of people, and in doing so, bring them into the learning process exactly as they are. Expressing this imagination is where engagement begins.

Participation: When we invite participants’ imaginations, it gives them the freedom and safety to express themselves and take increasingly challenging creative risks, rather than participating in cookie-cutter ways. In doing so, they activate the dance of divergent and convergent thinking, thus making connections between the experience of the activity and various aspects of their lives. This is where meaning making happens. The result – increased creative confidence, self-awareness, willingness to take risks, and better emotional management.

Commitment: Participation through an engaged imagination opens a world of knowledge for people, about themselves and others. Instead of being coerced, participants engage their own internal motivation to direct their learning towards what matters to them. While participation leads to discovery, commitment is the choice of acting on that discovery. Whether it is mastering a skill, engaging in other learning opportunities, asking questions to reflect, or even diving deeper into a new topic – commitment takes many forms of action.

Youth workers and facilitators across the world use our I-P-C framework to make learning matter. Quoting participants of our online programs:

  • “The imagination games are mindful and also give me ideas to refresh my old ones in order to be more creative in this critical moment of the pandemic.”
  • “Learning to build trust and engagement through bite-sized pieces has been very eye-opening. It’s made all the difference in my online classes.”
  • The IPC model, use of breakout rooms, and most importantly, I now have a repository of creative,  interactive activities to help engage my students.

There’s also a growing body of research that underscores the critical role of imagination in our lives. Studies confirm that imagination can impact our brains and bodies in ways that matter for our wellbeing. For example, one study showed that divergent thinking was strongly associated with preadolescents’ ability to cope in stressful situations. Further research confirms that “creative answers” are a common reaction to strong emotions, and creative self-expression may serve as a buffer for the adolescent’s typical “storm and stress.”

Wondering how you can implement I-P-C? Here are three imagination games for you to lead:

  • Yes, And… is a storytelling game that develops listening skills, and generates joy.
  • Yes, Let’s engages the imagination, body, voice, and fosters a “yes” atmosphere.
  • This is not a… leads to divergent thinking, collaboration, and stepping out of comfort zones.

And here is a free download of our e-book on the ‘Five Facilitation Power Tools that will show you how to boost the impact of your group activities.

Authors: Nilisha Mohapatra and Andrew Nalani

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