by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II
My best friend in college, Schuyler Hamilton, wrote several children’s books, one of which had a weird title: NO ITANI GAMI. It was about a balloon that was found in the wilds of Africa with those exact words written on its sides. Many experts were called in to figure out what this strange language was and what it meant. Finally someone, probably a child, pointed out that it was just a simple but important word spelled backwards— “imagination.”
A few days ago I was talking to some of our educators at Thorne Nature Experience and asked them about what I should write for Boulder County Kids. They said, “Why not write about the importance of imagination in children?” We talked about how important it was for kids to develop imagination when they were very young. I immediately realized how wild play in nature helps build this trait. To play freely in nature and discover its variety of materials, colors, smells, textures, and living things should always be a key part of a child’s development. I’ve written about this before in this space.
I had a good example of imagination last summer when I was catching and banding hummingbirds up at A Bar A Ranch, a Wyoming guest ranch. Hummingbirds are easily hypnotized by gently rubbing their sternum, or breast bone. I like to find a young child from among the guests at the ranch, have them hold their hand out flat, and then hypnotize a “hummer” upside down in the palm of their hand. The bird just lies there with its eyes open, breathing naturally, but doesn’t move. By holding its beak, I can usually turn it right side up and it will continue to just sit there. I then tap the bottom of the child’s hand and the hummingbird snaps out of its hypnotized state and flies away to the amazement of all who are watching, especially the little kid! It becomes a memory they never forget.
Since the ranch has a well established art and crafts program, this particular child drew a colorful picture of her experience and presented it to me as a gift. I cherish it. It’s the picture shown above. What a wonderful imagination! Look how big the hummingbird is compared to the rest of the picture and the vivid color she uses. In her picture she showed the long beak and short wings and some flowers that this bird might visit to collect nectar. There’s even a sun in the upper right hand corner, important for life on Earth! This is a perfect example of a nature experience encouraging creativity and imagination.
Coloring books with strict lines inhibit a child’s ability to create. They are unimaginative. On the other hand, a blank piece of paper, art supplies, and freedom to create in one’s own way help the development of creativity and imagination. This is also important for the development of critical thinking. The opposite is true for video and computer games as well as TV, which “flat-line” the brain. That is, “They put the brain to sleep.” My young
friend, however, when she painted the picture for me, at that time had a brain that was indeed alive, active and full of imagination!
As a boy growing up on Long Island, New York, I had 60 acres of woods, meadows, streams, and a lake in which I enjoyed wild play in nature with all its benefits. It allowed my imagination to “run wild.” It’s the reason I grew up to be a biologist and naturalist and eventually an environmental educator “connecting kids to nature.” I love what I do. Please remember what Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Long live imagination!
Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check www.thornenature.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (303) 499-3647.