Keeping imagination and creativity alive as facts loom large

Among his other talents, my father is a talented storyteller. So talented, in fact, that after countless bedtime stories, I would toss and turn in my bed, conjuring up all sorts of terrifying creatures.

One night, Dracula himself appeared at the end of my bed, his collar and top lip curled in disdain, eyeing me balefully as if I wasn't tasty enough to attack.

Another night, a pool of moonlight illuminated a mummified hand, pitifully scrabbling through the shaggy carpet as if reaching for my toes. And then there was the tale of the young man who had tumbled into a meat-grinder, and had been resurrected as an animated pile of mincemeat, shuffling around outside my bedroom door and moaning pathetically.

I thus learned from a young age the magical power of storytelling. The shrubbery out in the garden became an army of orcs, poised to attack my brothers and me. Our bathtub was the Pacific Ocean, with rubber ducks and Lego blocks the various ships and islands.

Our treehouse was a fortress, and the neighbour's boy who mowed our lawns was the enemy, trying to scale our heights. Naturally, acorns became cannonballs, much to his chagrin.

Ever since the first humans gathered around the first campfire, stories have been woven, shared and elaborated upon. From chalky paintings daubed upon the walls of the Lascaux Caves, to the intricate novels of Victor Hugo, stories have fascinated humankind.

The methods of storytelling may have changed over the years, but the desire to hear and share stories about each other has remained constant over the ages.

One's early years are largely spent playing and exploring the world around us. The bedtime stories and fairy tales we are told around the kitchen table help shape our little worlds, and in turn, we relate these stories to others.

What might look like simple childhood play is often highly important work, with imagination and play helping children to develop vital psychological and emotional capabilities. Our mischief, fighting, squabbling, and storytelling helped us understand the world around us, and work together to battle off any problems, be it orcs or shrubs.

We attach words to emotional experiences - we tell our teddies off for being naughty, or bellow out spells from Harry Potter as we attack each other with twigs and sticks. Indeed, various studies have shown that imaginative play can help to foster important social qualities in children, including empathy, co-operation, and appreciation of others' feelings.

Psychologists Eric Lindsay and Malinda Colwell found in 2013 that children who engage in imaginative play express more emotional engagement, thoughtfulness and understanding. Moreover, they express less negative emotional expression such as selfishness and anger, and go on to score higher on tests of emotional regulation and understanding.

''Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.''

I was about 11 years old when I read Dickens' Hard Times. These opening lines, uttered by the dour Mr Gradgrind, sum up his hard and rationalist philosophy. I felt desperately sad for Tom and Louisa, deprived of any sense of fun, imagination and play.

Yet it seems as if throughout schools across the country, and indeed the world, the powers that be are slowly and inexorably draining all imaginative and creative elements from the curriculums, placing more weight on the ''hard'', ''objective'' subjects of maths and science, and lessening the importance of creative, ''easy'' subjects such as English, classics, dance, music, art and drama.

And certainly, Gradgrind's ''facts'' can be measured, weighed and approved by school inspectors, listed each quarter in well-thumbed newspapers and league tables. But what of imagination, creativity, and the sheer joy of reading and writing?

Maybe one day, I will have children myself. As I tuck them into bed, pulling the covers over their sleepy forms, I will tell them of weird and wonderful things, of ghouls and fairies, sprites and vampires, shapeshifters and pirates.

But perhaps I will leave the hallway light on for them, and my bedroom door open, just in case these creatures stray beyond the bounds of imagination and into their little worlds.

-Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.


Pools of darkness at the end of the passage harboured some vague place where the terrifyingly weird Disney Peter Pan might lurk. 'Tell him to grow up, then!', called a commonsensical pater, veteran of dubya dubya 2.

Yet, the wallpaper. What. A. Shower. Prolific of flowering blackcurrant and stupid fuchsia. After a time, the patterns described a sylvan scene: half as gold as green, with a lady strolling 'la de da'.

All a child wants to do is sleep. Nobody expects..Drury Lane. With sleep came dreaming: a ten foot high 'Goofy' (with the hat), stomping down the No Exit, or 'cul de sac', as the toffs had it.

Frankly, I blame 'Little Golden Books'. Disney, Prisney.


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