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Imagination: The Forgotten 21st Century Skill?

By Brian Smith on December 31, 2014
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

The world changes every day. There is always something new. New technology that we instantly wonder how we ever lived without, video games and 3-D movies that are hyper-realistic, and toys that let kids simulate everything from cooking on the grill to vacuuming.

These things are awesome and I love them all (except maybe for the noise that the play vacuum makes . . . I could live without that and still feel I lead a fulfilled life), but what they are slowly stealing from us is our sense of imagination. I am not the first (and I won’t be the last) to talk about this issue, but instead of just stating the problem, I want to offer a solution.


Not a Box Book Cover

Antoinette Portis wrote a book called Not a Box and, in my humble opinion, it’s a must-have for every classroom. I was once asked what I thought the quintessential read-aloud book for kindergarten would be and (after I looked up the word quintessential to make sure I had the definition correct . . . and I did) I easily chose Not a Box.







Mobile users can view the video here.


Page from Not a BoxThis book is one of the first that I read to my class every year, and one that we revisit several times. The message is clear: use your imagination. The main character, a cleverly drawn rabbit, has a box. An off-page adult asks the rabbit why he’s standing on, beside, and in the box. The rabbit always responds, “It’s not a box.” The words and illustrations are both very simple but they serve as a powerful reminder that during the course of my day I have to allow time for my students to develop their imaginations. I keep this reminder at the front of my room all year.


To help inspire students to use their imagination there are four things that I do:

  1. While the students are working on different projects or learning in our centers, I introduce situations where the solutions aren’t immediately evident by asking¸ “What if . . .?” or “How could . . .?”.  These questions help take play to an imaginative level.

  2. When we have an extra five minutes before lunch or some other transition, I will call out an item such as the playground slide and we brainstorm different things it could be. My favorite answer so far is they could lay at the top and the slide could be Rapunzel’s hair.

  3. I give them time and space. I supervise, but I also encourage independence. I’ve found that when students are given time for physical activity that isn’t structured by the teacher, they will find a way to structure it on their own. This is when they can let their imagination take over. Four students and a patch of grass becomes good guys/bad guys, Power Rangers, or a choir that sings our calendar songs in a concert.

  4. Finally, I read other books that talk about imagination such as:


Not a Stick Book Cover
Harold and the Purple Crayon Book CoverAlice the Fairy Book CoverI'm Bored Book CoverStella Star of the Sea Book Cover







It is so easy, especially during the second half of the year, to lose sight of the fact that our students are still children. The end of the year seems so far away to our students (and many of their parents), but every teacher knows that it will be here before we know it. Teachers will soon be judged by what we have taught our students and because of that many will say that there isn’t enough time for “play” in school. I understand that point of view and I feel those pressures too, but when I look at those 21st century skills and how one of the three big areas is critical and creative thinking, I feel like I would doing a disservice by not making time for building imagination.

I know that you have some other book titles that are perfect for spurring along those budding imaginations. I hope that you will take just a moment and share them with so I can increase my imagination library.

Let's connect on Twitter and Pinterest.

I can’t wait to see you next week.

Comments (7)

I love these ideas, Brian, and I think you are so right - our kids need imagination time! It is something we lose in older grades.

I love The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg for showing the importance of imagination and getting kids thinking. In fact, all his books are great for that! Z Got Zapped is a favorite too.

Thanks for sharing your ideas!

Love the Sara Thomson books Imagine a Place, Imagine a Night, Imagine a Day. The Rob Gonsalves illustrations are INCREDIBLE, and truly imaginative!

It's so inspiring to hear about teachers like you who are keeping the flame of imagination alive in the classroom. You have my admiration!

This is so awesome to have you comment! I love your book and hope that other classrooms use it to inspire their students because a world without imagination is a dull world indeed!

Hi Brian,
Yesterday, we read "I'm A Frog" by one of your favorite authors, Mo Willems...Piggie teaches Gerald all about imagination when he insists that he a frog, not a pig! My PreK kids loved it, and quickly confessed some of the things that THEY pretend to be!! Great( and timely) blog!

Great post! I have an Imagination Station in my second grade classroom. When students create concrete things from their imaginations, I allow them to share their creations with the class. (Creations can be made at home or school.) Their creations are then put on display in our Imagination Station.

Thanks for reading! I have 5 centers. Housekeeping, blocks, writing, reading, and imagination station. What a wonderful thing to have in a Second grade classroom. Things like this are rapidly disappearing from even kindergarten classrooms so kudos to you for maintaining it in second grade!
Kind regards,
Brian Smith

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