Kids’ Imaginations

An Interview with Dr. Bradley Wigger

When my children were young, we played all kinds of imaginative games. Sometimes we took our cues from stories we had read together. Other times we pretended to blast off in a space shuttle, fight fires, or cook a magnificent feast. I was frequently amazed at the details and longevity of these imaginative experiences. Dr. J. Bradley Wigger studies children and their use of their imaginations, and he hears about this kind of play all the time. He explains why children like to imagine and how using their imaginations help kids make sense of the world around them.


I’m Erin Reibel, and my colleague, Karen-Marie Yust, and I are talking with Dr. Bradley Wigger, who’s been researching children’s spirituality and imagination for several years. We’re eager to hear about his findings.

Hi, Brad. Let’s start with a broad question. What are you learning generally about children’s imaginations?

Well, first of all, it’s good to be with y’all, and yeah, I’m happy to share some of what I’ve been finding about children’s imaginations. I’ll start by saying, the way I’ve gotten into studying children’s imaginations has been specifically by interviewing children about their imaginary friends. And that’s a kind of… I would call that an intense version of the imagination. So kids playing with dolls and action figures and all, they’re exercising their imaginations. This is maybe another step where you’re playing with figures, but nobody else can see them. So there’s a vividness to these children’s imaginations. So the question is, what am I learning about children’s imaginations? A lot of what I’m learning is a counter way of thinking about imagination than to at least what I inherited. When I first started teaching, what, 30 plus years ago as a TA in a developmental psych class, the dominant paradigm was both Freud and Piaget for thinking about children’s minds in general and their psyches in general, but that included their imaginations.

And Freud’s theory was (and Piaget picked up on it) that children’s imaginations are just a result of unmet needs, that they were compensating. It was all in throwing up images to compensate for unmet needs. So if a child’s hungry, they might hallucinate or imagine food as a way to compensate for that. Now, there was a lot of critique of that, at the time even, but still it got set as a way of thinking about children’s imagination. And it has led to an anxiety about, especially something like imaginary friends, that parents might feel afraid that there’s actually something wrong with their child if they’re making up people, and an assumption that they are making up friends out of a sense of loneliness. Again, unmet needs, so you throw up an imaginary friend. But not just my work, but folks like Paul Harris, Marjorie Taylor, Alison Gopnik have all been questioning that, more than questioning that, but showing that that’s probably not the case at all.

It’s probably much more the case, in the case of imaginary friends, the kids who generate imaginary friends are often really social kids. They’re just so friendly and like being around friends so much, they just make up more. But even more important, I would say, what I’m learning and what I’m playing off of some of these other figures is that the imagination is a way of practicing and playing with life. It’s a way of… In the case of imaginary friends, you’re practicing not only your own perspective, but the perspective of somebody else, and you’re going back and forth in dialogues and interactions. That’s a way of rehearsing the way everyday life is with people. So in the case of imaginary friends, then kids’ imaginations are helping them negotiate the social world around them. That’s one direction.

So what types of things are children imagining these days?

Well, again, in my particular studies, they’re imagining figures, and I use the word figures, or characters would probably be more appropriate, almost like characters out of novels and picture books. So the characters might be some… It might be Cinderella that they read about. But sometimes Cinderella is Cinderella, a princess, but then sometimes Cinderella is a blue dog. There’s a flexibility going on in children’s imaginations. So at the moment, they want to play with a blue dog, and another moment, they might want to play with Cinderella, or Cinderella the princess. So they are imagining everything in their world, I would say. Maybe the closest parallel for adults would be something like dreaming. So if I went to dinner last night, and then in the night, I dream about the waiter who is actually in my classroom the next day, and we’re eating macaroni and cheese, it’s like I’m taking bits and pieces from our world and throwing them together in these stories or making characters out of them.

Those are the kinds of things children imagine in the wild sense, but they’re also imagining just their everyday world like, “Why are the trees so tall, and why are there clouds in the sky?” Those are imagination questions, I would say. And I think there are ways that we as adults in children’s lives can help them continue to imagine those, both the playful wild kinds of things, but also the things about the everyday world that they want to learn about. I guess the theme I’m pushing is how much the imagination is a tool for learning, but through something more playful most of the time.

That makes a lot of sense. And I know many times, adults are dismissive of children’s imaginations. I’m wondering how important is listening for supporting children’s imaginations?

Yeah, well, listening to children in general is important, and then listening and not being dismissive of their imaginations. I mean, you can play with them. In fact, I would go beyond listening, but at least in many children’s lives, they enjoy if you will join them in the play, the imaginative play. So that might be… I’m thinking of this… We have a tree house we inherited when we bought our house, and our granddaughter, or our grandkids, both of them, granddaughter and grandson, were here about a year ago, and we’ve been reading a bunch of Magic Tree House books to them. So books like that actually provoke imagination as well.
But we climbed up in the tree house. And pretty soon, my granddaughter is saying the opening to the… It goes something like, “And the wind started to blow, and the tree house started to spin, and it spun and spun.” And then I started playing off of that. And then we landed, and then I said, “Well, where are we?” And she said, “We’re in India.” And I, “Oh, what does it look like in India?” And, “Oh, there are mountains and there are dragons.” I said, “There are dragons in India?” “Yeah.” So it was just delightful to make up a story together or join her in her imagination as well. That’s something really easy to do.

Erin: Brad, thank you so much for all of this information, and we really appreciate you being with us here today.

It’s been my pleasure.




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