Volume II - 1994

The Deep Water Had Deeper Fishes: On Creating a Language of the Imagination with Children
by Richard Lewis

      Richard Lewis has worked extensively in the writing and editing of books for and about children. He is founder and director of the The Touchstone Center for Children, Inc., in New York City which has pursued a unique approach to curriculum, based on the use of elemental themes as a means of integrating the arts with other disciplines.

      How do we bring this invisible quality of thought called "imagination" to children? How do we make real the imagining process when that process is often seen as an impractical form of learning? How do we reach the "language of the imagination" when many children, even those who are not bilingual, have become unsure of their ability to use language of any kind as a medium for their own feelings and thoughts? What can we do to make the imagination a pivotal force in how children learn rather then a special kind of intelligence or talent deemed to be the property of only "gifted" children?

      Let us look, for a moment, at the classroom where I am about to speak to some public school first graders on the Lower East-side of Manhattan about some creatures of the sea. I start, in front of the room, by rustling a few keys that I take from my pocket. I whisper to the children how--whenever I take my keys out and listen to the sounds they make in my hand--I am reminded of the sounds fish make as they travel in the darkness of their watery homes. I let my hand begin to move like a fish, wiggling and squirming this way and that--until I notice a few children in the back of the room completely absorbed in my every movement. I ask one of the children to come up and take my keys and swim down to the bottom of the ocean with me. Of course by this time the whole class wants to do just that; but before we get everyone involved, I give my attention to Maria, the child standing next to me. I give her the keys--and she wraps them up in her hand. I ask her:

"Would you mind if I took one fish from the keys and let that fish swim with me?"

"No" she replies, handing me one of the fish that she imagines in the set of keys she calmly holds.

"And would you mind if I give one of the fishes to your teacher?" who is standing nearby.

      Maria obliges and gives her teacher a fist-full of newly created fish. Now there are three wholesome fish ready to plunge into the ocean. I ask Maria to lead us, step by step, down into the sea. She takes a deep breath (and we take a deep breath too) and gingerly we step into the wet and waiting sea.

      Let me pause for a minute here because what I have just described is somehow at the basis of some of the questions I originally asked of us. We have assumed, as did the children in that first grade, that "to imagine"is not a difficult task because we started off playing. The keys I jangled in my hand--which I quickly made into fish and the sound of fish no less-- were a quick invitation for the children to play with me. I relied on nothing more then each child's inherent ability for play.

The Language of Imagination

      But their acceptance to play, to pay attention not so much to me but to what was in my hand, was their acknowledgment that to play was to invent. A simple household key is only a key until we let our imagination play upon it; and then, quite miraculously, it can become a fish, a dinosaur, a walking tree, an upside down rainfall, or anything at all. Once this play has begun, we have entered a language. A language as wide ranging as any spoken or written language--perhaps a language which can, if we perceive language as our ability to communicate through symbols, out-smart most of our conventional habits of communicating. For here is a language which can take any object, such as a set of keys, and transform it into a silent set of images we can step in and out of without anyone really noticing. It is a language enabling us to talk to ourselves, sometimes through words, sometimes through feeling, sometimes through precise imagery, and often through a marvelous blending of all these things. It is a language whose grammar is, by and large, determined by what we are playing with and how we play; a language which does not speak in ordinary ways, and is often understood only by those who are willing to listen and respond playfully. The genius of this kind of language is that no one needs to teach it to children because it is a child's first language, inherited and made alive through the bones so to speak. Its first manifestation is the moment an infant picks up a ball, a stone, or a piece of paper and begins to play. It is the basic language through which children anywhere in the world begin to make contact with each other and the "things" of their world.

      A child's initial schooling is really what he or she learns when this play-language becomes the tool with which to understand. By playing with my set of keys, I translate myself back to a language and a way of knowing that needs little or no introduction to children. It is their willingness to believe that such a language really does exist--and continues to be an important way of our communicating with each other--that ultimately makes a difference in how we proceed together.

      In this particular first grade, there are a number of children whose first language is not English but who suddenly find an ease of expression and a fluency of thought when we continue to play with our fish at the bottom of the sea. When I ask the children to describe the fish they see in the ocean, there is no end to individual descriptions of long flat, round, silvery, sharp and heavy creatures lurking in each child's imaginary realm of the deep. The children's enthusiasm to tell us everything they imagine is a good moment to ask them as a class to draw a picture of these swimming creatures. We give the children black construction paper and some cray-pas. What they portray in their pictures is not the idyllic waters of a calm ocean but an ocean that is a cross between a benevolent sea, and the confused and violent world that many of these children must come to terms with in their everyday lives. Some of the children volunteer the stories and poems within their pictures:

The guys were running after each other
This guy was fighting with this guy.
This is fish water.
A fish dies in there.
The guy was bleeding.
The snake went under the water and the other
snake caught him
The other snake jumped up because someone hit
him on the head.

My fish slept--and he went far away to the deep water.
He went to the pawn shop downtown.

The shark fell in the water.
He tried to get the man and the man was moving.
The turtle is going to bite the shark.
And then the man is going to bite the turtle.
The shark said I'd like the turtle to eat him.
I'm dead 'cause you want to eat me up.
I love you.
I love myself.

      From their drawings on the black construction paper, we help the children make small cut-out puppets of some of the creatures in their pictures. With these puppets they act out stories, moving them silently through the air as if they, the children, had become the creatures themselves in the depths of unknown waters. Again the language of their play enables many of these children, who had been reluctant to do so before, to speak and interact with each other. The narratives they bring to their puppets are the interior worlds that many of these children inhabit but rarely have the opportunity of speaking about to anyone. When we ask the children to share with us what is happening behind the gestures and movements of their puppets, they gladly sit down with one of us and tell us their story:

The whale is blind.
The sun is too hot.
The kids are playing 'shark-attack.'
The boat is drowning.

The star is in the earth.
The air and the star mix up.
The fish jump into the ocean.
The sea horse swims in the ocean.
The man swims in the ocean.
The man saw the star fish.

      Again let us ask ourselves about how it is possible to help children gain access to their imagination, particularly children who may have been hampered by expectations which assume that because they have not mastered the complexities of "correct" language construction, they lack imaginative capabilities. Certainly this is not the case with these first graders who, despite their so-called language deficiencies, find little difficulty in "playing", in "making believe", in "becoming" something other than themselves in order to speak "imaginatively". Their imaginative language is vibrant with a knowledge that sometimes contradicts the idea that children who have had little "real-life" experience, such as actually going to the ocean, could not possibly "imagine" anything about the ocean. Yet, time and time again, this assumption is proven wrong when they show themselves to be perfectly capable of reaching understandings that lie beyond merely factual information. The first graders we mentioned earlier are a good example of this.

Imaginative Understanding

      It my contention this "imaginative understanding" is a deeply felt experience and intuition which operates below and around our everyday levels of speech and verbal articulation. It is an understanding, as we said of the language of play, which is within the very fibers of our genetic makeup. It is part of a language which tries, at every turn of our lives, to make sense of who and what we are; a bridge which connects unknowns with knowns, fragments of thoughts with patterns of thought, questions with answers, feelings with actualities. Without this language we would be unable to be aware, to be awake to our own desire to speak, to even formulate the concept of symbols which make up the words of our daily speech.

      If the unlocking of this language of the imagination with a group of children can happen so quickly and simply by the rustling of my keys and my accompanying disclosure that some fish are swimming inside the darkness of the sea, then, it seems to me, we might have a clue as to how to use this kind of language with children differently than we have in the past. Perhaps we need, in much of our teaching, to begin with a language of imaginative thought as the basis of how we teach and how children can learn. Perhaps we ought to first bring children into the metaphors of their own playfulness and, once they are securely inside this playfulness, allow them to learn from the inside out. (If I am a fish in the sea, what would the water around me feel like, what are the sounds that waves make, what are the colors of the passing daylight?) The questions we ask of ourselves and of children are always different when we play. And the answers to these questions are often, because of the nature of play, that much more personal. If more personal, then language, as a means of our explaining ourselves, has the possibility of being less mechanistic and distancing, and closer to being honest and genuine.

      Jessica, one of the children in that first grade, became so much a part of her own playfulness that she could hardly contain her enthusiasm when I let the fish from my key chain escape into the room each week. Her confidence grew as she entered the language of her imagining and realized how we, her teachers and fellow players, welcomed her thoughts as she drew or wrote about the world within her. One day she asked me to sit with her so that I could take down a story she had become, a language she had retained and believed in because it was her own. As if reading a book she had memorized, she turned each page of her thoughts with the anticipation of one who savored what came next and knew, instinctively, how important it was for both of us to be there, listening:

A mermaid who turned into a woman
When she came out of the water.
And then the deep water
had deeper fishes.
And then the princess star fish came.
And then the water came over her.
And then the water turned
into a star fish crown.
And then I came out of the water and lay down
next to a big giant tree.
And then the black water came over me when
I was laying down over the big giant tree.
And then the big beautiful rainbow came.
And then I went in the big beautiful rainbow
and I saw a beautiful world.

back to content page