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Learning to Imagine

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Learning to Imagine

The Science of Discovering New Possibilities

Harvard UP,

15 min read
8 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

This counterintuitive look at imagination and curiosity might make you rethink what you know about innovation.

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative
  • Scientific
  • Eye Opening


Cognitive developmental psychologist Andrew Shtulman dispels the myth that children are masters of imagination. He argues that imagination develops through education, practice and thoughtful reflection. It’s a buildable skill more than an innate quality, and certainly one that does not languish with age. Shtulman shows that children tend to imitate more than innovate. His scholarly treatise explains that people of all ages can enhance their imagination and creative abilities by learning from examples and applying principles and models from various fields, such as mathematics, literature and religion.


The belief that children are more imaginative than adults is ill-founded.

In stories like Peter Pan, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Mary Poppins, children are portrayed as open to wonder and magic, while adult characters are not – suggesting that children have a far more powerful capacity for imagination than grownups. However, a closer examination of children’s pretend play reveals that, more often than not, children lean more toward imitation than innovation. Children pretend to cook and clean – mirroring adult activities – and their creations, like forts and block towers, are kid versions of things they see in the real world.

When playing games, children adhere to rules and strongly resist the suggestion of deviating from them. They focus on recreating familiar objects and struggle with abstract concepts when making art. Some children create imaginary friends, but they usually resemble real ones, and their imaginary worlds mimic reality. 

Imagination evolved for practical purposes.

Adults face similar limitations when it comes to “unstructured” imagination...

About the Author

Andrew Shtulman is a cognitive developmental psychologist renowned for his research on conceptual development and change, especially in science education. 

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