Education: Once upon a time there was an `imagination hour'

Government initiatives such as the literacy hour are all very well, but Penny Hancock, a former primary school teacher, wonders what use they are if schoolchildren aren't actually encouraged to write creatively any more
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The Independent Online
Once upon a time children wrote stories at school. Now they have the literacy hour. They know what a verb and an adjective is, they know about genres, they know about speech marks and different ways stories can begin. But can they write a good story?

With the demands of the national curriculum and the forthcoming numeracy hour, something has to give if teachers are to remain sane. But creative writing? "We just don't have time to cover everything" is the cry, and unfortunately, at the moment, it seems that creative writing is one of those things which just does not fit in.

But creative writing is literacy. Writing because you are inspired to express yourself is a sure fire way of finding a way to do it. How can there be literacy without an incentive for being literate?

I don't want to harp on about a golden age of education which we all know never existed. But I can't help reflecting that in 1968 my friends and I, aged eight and nine (much the same age as my own daughter is now) were writing novels, inspired by an ongoing game we played in the playground. Our teacher, who had come out of training college full of ideals about child-centred education, had tuned into the fact that our playground fantasies were what inspired us and had this wonderful idea that we should turn them into stories which other children could read.

I still have the results, exuberantly illustrated exercise books packed full from front to back with the adventures of the children of "Paddock Hill". There are chapter headings, speech marks, paragraphs and captions for the illustrations. At the risk of bragging, reading them now I see that I had a sense of character, setting, plot, suspense, climax and resolution.

The literacy hour, of course, had never been thought of, we didn't know that, when we wrote "excitedly", this was an adverb. But the language was there because we had an incentive to produce it, the sense of story was there because we knew other people would read it, the inspiration was there, because our teacher tuned in to what it meant to be a child.

Later as a primary school teacher myself, in the days before the national curriculum, I remember children in my own and my colleagues' classes thrilled at the idea that their own writing could be made into books. We had a kind of book-making jamboree. There is nothing so inspiring as feeling that the little germ that springs from your imagination can be turned into something that you can hold and feel, read and enjoy and see other people relating to. I would probably throw my own hands up in horror at the spelling I let pass because in those days we felt children should be allowed to write first, spell later. But the children wanted to write and they did write. Some wrote fiction, others poetry, some jokes, others recipe books. They wanted to do it. Some, those with few literacy skills, hobbled along in order to produce their books, just as a child with a broken leg will not be persuaded to sit still and take it one step at a time. Everyone wanted to produce a book, so they did.

So it saddens me to see my own children, at the tender ages of seven and nine, unable and unwilling to write creatively. They can spell beautifully, and they read avidly, so the potential skills are there. "I can't think what to write about," is one complaint, because the emphasis on technique seems to have left no room for inspiration or the sense that there might be any reason for doing it.

There are two reasons why this worries me so much. The first is that if children aren't encouraged to explore the fertile world of their imaginations when they are at their most fluid (during their childhood) then the opportunity will be lost forever as the demands of the adult word take over. Business management gurus like Jack Black are already bewailing the fact that our culture has become too "left-side orientated", that our whole education system is geared towards developing our reason and logic at the expense of our creativity. Roger Sperry and Robert Ornstein, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1981, found that the two sides of the brain had different functions and that people who had been specifically trained to use one hemisphere were almost unable to use the other. The disciplines that the Government is encouraging in school today are all left-side activities. However, good business cannot be achieved without imagination. Scientific discoveries cannot be made without creative thought.

Einstein once said "Imagination is more important than knowledge." All the great entrepreneurs use a combination of left- and right-sided brain activity. In a culture which is increasingly business-orientated, we should surely use this, if nothing else, as a reason for encouraging children to use and develop the imaginations which are so active at this age (alongside, not at the expense of, left-sided activities, even if we pay little regard to creativity for its own sake.

Another reason it worries me is that, by depriving children of making up stories or poems or plays, we are also preventing them from exploring their emotions in a safe way. Exploring feelings of aggression, hurt, pain, happiness and love through stories is a safe way to accept one's often frightening feelings at a tender age. And we all know what a lot of feelings children have to cope with in an unpredictable world, one in which the pressures and stresses on children are greater than ever.

"We used to write every afternoon," remembers a friend who was at primary school in the Seventies. "I created a whole world in which every one of my toys had a character and appeared in my stories. I killed off people I didn't like and resurrected them again when I forgave them. You can do anything in a story."

There is no easy answer. Of course there is a need for a focus on literacy, and some literacy skills do have to be taught. The literacy hour has a role to play. But teaching children literacy without allowing them also to write creatively is rather like telling them the different processes involved in baking without actually allowing them to make a cake. As soon as children go to secondary school and become self-conscious they are less willing to write creatively, and, as adults, many of us find it difficult to tap into the side of our brains that thinks creatively.

Primary school used to be the one exception to this bias in our culture towards logic and reason when it was recognised that young children live fully in their imaginations and flourish through opportunities to exercise them, be it through play, art, or other forms of creative self-expression. To miss this golden opportunity is to neglect a seam of gold in our culture.