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A Conversation On Children’s Imagination and Cognition

For the researchers of AMMACHI Labs and CWEGE to be exposed to the high calibre of research and work that [insert name] has done, and to gain insights into the research process through [his/her] experiences. Additionally, any potential collaboration that comes out of these interactions is welcomed 

Participants: AL & CWEGE Research Staff & Scholars 

Biography of Speaker

Dr. Paul Harris is interested in the early development of cognition, emotion, and imagination. His most recent book, Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2012. This book discusses how far children rely on their own first-hand observation or alternatively trust what other people tell them — especially when they confront a domain of knowledge in which firsthand observation is difficult. For example, many aspects of history, science, and religion concern events that children cannot easily observe for themselves. How far do children believe what they are told about these domains? When and how do they become aware of the conflicting claims made by science as compared with religion?

Event/Session Details/Discussions/Highlights

Early accounts of the development of the imagination portrayed young children as fantasy prone. For example, echoing Freudian claims, Piaget emphasized the early dominance of fantasy over reality based thinking (Harris, 1997, 2000; Piaget, 1923). On that classic account, a more objective and reality oriented stance emerges slowly in the course of development, displacing children’s tendency toward unrealistic fantasy. As described in the introduction, more recent studies of pretend play have analyzed the intriguing individual differences among young children in their disposition to become engaged in a make-believe world where they invent imaginary companions or indeed whole communities. Neither of these accounts has focused on the connections between children’s understanding of reality and their imaginative activities. Yet those connections are apparent from an early age in children’s pretend play. Moreover, such connections persist into adulthood because the recall of past reality is likely to impact the way in which the future is envisioned. Indeed, to the extent that older children and adults must plan a variety of short and long-term activities, the intimate connection between knowledge of reality and the contemplation of future possibilities is likely to be a stable feature of mature thinking. Besides this enduring connection, the present review has also pointed to plausible developmental changes. Commensurate with their developing recall of the past, children should be increasingly able to envisage what might happen in the future and to plan appropriately for contingencies that might arise. In addition, insofar as children critically appraise the products of their imagination, they can increasingly differentiate between what cannot possibly happen and what might conceivably happen even if it is improbable.

Moreover, in the course of development, children show signs of greater inventiveness. Faced with a problem whose solution is specified in an ill-structured fashion, older children are more adroit than younger children at identifying a workable solution from among the range of possibilities. They are able to entertain a solution in their imagination and to set about executing that solution, whether it involves the manufacture of a tool or the drawing of a non-existent entity. In each of these cases, there is a striking gap between the difficulties that young children display when left to their own devices—that is, when left to decide what tool to make or what novel entity to draw—and the relatively successful performance they display when given an external prompt. Thus, in each case, young children’s difficulties lie in the autonomous generation of a mental template or plan of action but if that is supplied externally, they succeed. This account of the imagination opens up several potentially fruitful avenues for developmental research. First, it invites further analysis of the extent to which reality-based constraints continue to guide children’s imagination in the course of development. Consider, for example, the development of counterfactual thinking (Nyhout & Ganea, 2019). According to the present account, children should typically generate counterfactual alternatives that are closely tied to realistic possibilities even if they are receptive to more exotic possibilities when those are presented to them. Consistent with these predictions, when 6- to 11-year-olds were invited to generate counterfactual thoughts in the wake of a negative outcome (e.g., a farmer’s poor harvest), almost all of their proposals involved naturalistic alternatives (e.g., “If only he had watered them more”; Botsolis, De la Vina, Payir, Harris, & Cor- ~iveau, 2019). Thus, non-naturalistic alternatives (e.g., “He could have prayed”) were rarely pro- posed. Nevertheless, children who were receiving a religious education systematically endorsed the plausibility of such alternatives when explicitly presented with them. Second, this account invites further consideration of the ways in which children’s imagination can be used in the classroom. As noted in the discussion of thought experiments, children’s reality-based imagi nation is a positive advantage if they deploy it to contemplate the way that reality operates. In particular, prompting children to entertain various physical or social scenarios, and to contemplate how they might play out, may help them to overcome natıve or unreflecting intuitions. Thought experiments have played a major role in the history of philosophy and science, but their pedagogic benefits have rarely been explored in the classroom. 

Finally, this account invites more research on how cultural input can scaffold and ultimately shape the development of the imagination. Young children learn about the world from direct observation and, as argued in this article, that empirical observation of reality guides their early imaginative activities. Nevertheless, the evidence also shows that children are often receptive to imagining possibilities introduced by other people. For example, when it is enacted by a play partner, they readily imagine a pig squirted with ketchup; when explicitly prompted to do so, they can imagine the no vertical trajectory of a ball rolling down a sloping tube; and when cued by an adult, they can imagine a tool or non-existent entity that they proceed to make or draw. More generally, children also learn about the world and its possibilities from cultural input in the form of toys, stories, explanations, drawings, films, and cartoons, typically created and supplied by adults (Harris & Koenig 2006; Singer & Singer, 1990; Woolley & Cornelius,2013). Some of that cultural input can expand children’s understanding of reality. Thus, on the basis of stories and films, they can contemplate in their imagination remote places and events that they can- not easily observe first-hand. Other forms of cultural input are likely to override rather than simply expand children’s conception of reality. Thus, the supernatural powers described in religious narratives, the unobservable entities invoked in science, and the alternative possibilities represented in fiction, will also feed children’s imagination, leading them to set aside the known constraints of everyday reality. By implication, the direction that children’s imagination takes in the course of development is likely to be strongly inflected by the representations—in religion, science, and fiction that they encounter in the surrounding culture. 


Bhavani rao: I have two questions… what about children who have trauma, and choose to forget the past. So their recall of the past is impacted. Some children impacted by trauma also create worlds that are not associated with reality. So do people with schizophrenia. How does your work explain that? The second comment is on imagination therapy and imagination based meditation… I was wondering if we can be trained to imagine a positive and a “better” world, can that impact their capacity to actually create that “better” world 

Speaker: children who exposed to trauma I must admit that’s a question I hesitate to speculate on its not an issue that I have done any research on in the sense that to the best of my knowledge the majority of children that have been included in the studied that I have done or my students have done have not seen so to speak traumatized the closest that I can get is that I have been very interested in the accuracy of children recall there’s been a fascinating debate over the last 20 yrs. about to the extent to which children specially if they are repeatedly questioned are prone to invent a memory which actually take place so just to concretize this a little bit and there’s a famous report by piaget of his own childhood when apparently his nurse took him for a walk in park and they were approached somebody who was threatening to kidnap piaget the little boy and the nurse fended off the threat and the piaget family gave the nurse a Swiss watch as a reward but many years later felt guilty because e she all fabricated this story and she explained that she mislead them. 

From Gayathri Manikutty : When we talk about training children to be innovative and creative especially with technology tools, I have found with my work with children on story telling that they go through stages – from copy exact, to making small variations, to modifying parts to creating something completely new. So I think it does take time to encourage creativity in children especially around technology tools. What would be Dr Paul’s inputs on training children on creativity and innovation? 

Speaker: I think in all sorts of domains children can be creative in so far they gradually master so to speak the repertoire within that particular area so bit by bit they can move on from relatively faithful copying to modest variation to more adventurous variation but I tempted say why=t you are proposing is something more reality based so to speak and somewhat more realistic about the child’s imaginative capacities I think in lots of early childhood education the idea that the child should so to speak be put on a stead a slower apprenticeship is not taken very seriously the child is thought to be so imaginative is to be able to leap to the final stages rather than steadily progressing from faithful imitation to something more creative. Your point contains lot of domains. 

From Nihal Kaur : According to my unimpressive memory of digits, it takes about 10-13 years for as less as 15-20% of psychological scientific studies to be implemented as community practices where the findings can be of benefit. Creativity+imagination+ability to innovate – these are foundational 21st century skills. How can we use this valuable knowledge (which kind of contradicts what one would normally assume) OR perhaps in what ways has it been utilised in the direction of cultivation of creativity and curiosity in children across cultures? Many thanks.

Speaker: Its lamenting the fact that the flow of information from psychological research to community practices is pretty slow and so what is the likely future with respect to the flow of information about children creativity and imagination and ability to what extent is that going to be applied or how should we apply toward the future I must admit I have a slightly ambivalent reaction to this question partly because I feel I had to put this in here my department where people talking about 21st century skills we have somehow arrived at this new century. 

List of Participant

Attendance /No.of participants: 25 
Male: 13 Female: 12 
List of the participants 

  1. Kripa Gressel 
  2. Bhavani Rao 
  3. Gayathri Manikutty 
  4. Tzur Sayag
  5. Abhijith Dhillon 
  6. Paul Harris 
  7. Amrita sadanand 
  8. Anand 
  9. Balu Menon 
  10. christopher Coley 
  11. cristina Mayumi 
  12. Debasish Brahma 
  13. Deepu 
  14. Iphone 
  15. Isaac Lukambagire 
  16. Malini Frey 
  17. Meenu Prakash 
  18. Nandita 
  19. Nihal kaur 
  20. Sidney strauss 
  21. Sreejith 
  22. Rasika 
  23. Srividya shesadiri 
  24. Yamuna S B 
  25. Sophia von lieres 

Source of Funding: Organized by AL & CWEGE Flyer

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