In today’s world, often what comes to mind when we hear the word imagination, are wild and crazy creatures such as pink dragons with purple and green polka dots, fantastical robots or machines able to morph into any number of expedient fabrications, or super heroes with unlimited capabilities.  Time designated to these sorts of imaginings is notably absent in an Ambleside education. Why so? And how then is a child’s imagination grown and cultivated?

One of my family’s favorite movies is “Gifted Hands,” the story of Ben Carson’s upbringing. Currently the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Carson is a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon (now retired from the medical profession) esteemed for numerous accomplishments in the field of neuroscience including performing the first successful separation of cranial conjoined twins. In an amazing “defying the odds” story, this movie tells of his upbringing alongside an older brother by a single mom eking out a living working two or three jobs just to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Recognizing the brain-debilitating effect of hours of television viewing on her boys, she put limits on the screen time and instead required them to read at least two library books per week and report to her on what they had read. It was at some point during this time that Ben’s imagination turned on – he began to be able to see in his mind what was happening in the books he read. Even more importantly, he began to see himself in the stories, accomplishing what others might think was beyond his capabilities or realm of possibilities – believing in the message his mother had been telling him, “You can accomplish the impossible.” 

The movie does a beautiful job capturing this moment when Ben discovers he really does have an imagination! In his biography he credits this time as a turning point in his life. Rather than succumbing to a predictable path of a limited and perhaps even miserable, self-destructive life that his socio-economic circumstances might dictate, he instead began a journey of imagining and stepping into his God-given potential. So how did cultivating his imagination in this way lead to such incredible success for himself benefitting so many? Of course, years of study and hard work and some great teacher and mentor relationships were part of the equation, but it began with finding his imagination. Chapter IV of Home Education is one well worth reading on this subject. Charlotte Mason says the following regarding the Habit of Imagining:

…But let them have tales of the imagination, scenes laid in other lands and other times, heroic adventures, hairbreadth escapes, delicious fairly tales in which they are never roughly pulled up by the impossible – even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.

…And this, not for the children’s amusement merely:  it is not impossible that posterity may write us down a generation blest with little imagination, and, by so far, the less capable of great conceptions and heroic efforts, for it is only as we have it in us to let a person or a cause fill the whole stage of the mind, to the exclusion of self occupation, that we are capable of large hearted action on behalf of that person or cause.

And further on:

Now imagination does not descend, full grown, to take possession of an empty house; like every other power of the mind, it is the merest germ of a power to begin with, and grows by what it gets; and childhood, the age of faith, is the time for its nourishing. The children should have the joy of living in far lands, in other persons, in other times – a delightful double existence; and this joy they will find, for the most part, in their story books. Their lessons, too, history and geography should cultivate their conceptive powers. 

So how does an Ambleside education cultivate the imagination in a child? A feast of rich literature, both fiction and non-fiction, followed by narration and idea-rich discussions, fill a child’s day and mind with worthy food for his imagination. And who knows, the ideas and dreams already germinating in your child might be for acts of courage, sacrifice, kindness, and generosity even beyond our, the adults’, wildest imaginations!