Sir Ken Robinson says imagination is what makes us human

From the Q&A after Sir Ken Robinson’s keynote address at the 2012 Emergent Learning conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Originally posted by Alex Smith on the PlayGroundology blog.

Q: How important is the role of play in learning?

A: It’s fundamental. I talk a lot as you know about creativity. I didn’t want to get into all that again today particularly because of the nature of this conference. There are three key terms when we come to think about play. The first is imagination, the second is creativity and the third is innovation.

Imagination, I believe, is what fundamentally sets us apart from the rest of life on earth — very little does truthfully.

I think we overplay the differences between ourselves and everything else. Our life is short and organic like everything else. We come into groovy buildings like this and persuade ourselves we’re different but we’re not. But we are in this respect. Human beings have powerful imaginations. By imagination I mean the ability to bring into mind things that aren’t present to our senses.

So with imagination you can revisit the past, you can enter into other peoples’ consciousness empathetically — you can imagine what it would be like to be them — and you can anticipate the future. It’s what it is for everything that counts as distinctively human. It’s not a single power, it’s a mix of all different powers that come together and we call it such. But the thing is you can be imaginative all day long and never do anything.

To be creative you have to do something. Creativity is very practical. I think of it as applied imagination, putting your imagination to work.

There are lots of misconceptions about that and we can talk about that. My point is that the power to imagine and the impulse to create, to make things is the birthright of humanity. It’s why we are as we are. It’s why we don’t just live in buildings we’ve made, we inhabit conceptual structures that we’ve evolved.

We’ve evolved differently, we see the world from different perspectives and points of view because our experience of the world isn’t just direct it’s mediated through the ideas and values we frame and share with other people as a culture. To me it’s the most fundamental part of our way of being in the world.

Play for young people is actually essential. It’s a way in which they literally flex their muscles.

It amazes me how quickly and how often we forget that we are embodied, that we see the world the way do because we live in these bodies. If we were all 18′ tall with eyes at the sides of our head it would look very different to us. Dogs hear different frequencies and birds smell things we don’t smell. We see the world as it is because we’re built the way we are.

We are embodied, we’re not just brains on a stick.

Our children go to school in their bodies. Play is one of the ways they flex them, explore them, understand them, connect to other people.

We also live in virtual worlds that are the result of our imaginations. They need the ability to exercise that too. You see you can’t get to all the things we value — creativity in business, in work, in social systems, in the arts and the sciences if your imagination has atrophied.

It’s the same, the exact analogy for me with athletics. The Olympics are happening this year. If you want to take part in the Olympics then you better practice. There’s no point in saying I want to take part in the 100 metres and I won’t do anything in the meantime — I’ll just show up. I have high hopes. Well good luck with that. If you’re going to be an athlete, you have to exercise your body.

If you want to be creative you have to exercise your mind, your consciousness, your spirit. It’s fundamental to me.

Play, there’s different ways of defining it but broadly speaking play is an end in itself. It’s not directed to a larger purpose. I don’t want a system of playing schools where you get 15 minutes to do it then we test for a score. You just play because it’s interesting, enjoyable and pleasurable. You do it for that reason and no other reason. And it’s no coincidence that we go on to talk about playing sports, playing instruments because at the heart of it there’s this possibility of creative fulfillment that lies at the centre. I see it is a fundamental. It strikes me as a disaster that we’re excluding it from kindergartens, from elementary school and from high schools and colleges too.

For some reason we’ve forgotten our own humanity and we’ve come to assume that play is some kind of disposable, part time leisure activity that we can do without so we can be more serious.

I quote in the book a guy called Richard Feynman who won the Nobel Prize, a physicist. He’s a brilliant man and also a great jazz bongo player. He got the Nobel Prize for work he did in particle physics.

He started he said when he was sitting in Cornell University in the dining hall and a student fell over with a plateful of food. The thing just went up in the air. And Richard Feynman his eye was attracted by the plate, it was spinning and wobbling. The Cornell logo was on it and he said he watched it going round. He said he got fascinated by it.

Interesting of course, he didn’t rush to help the student. He thought, no, this is an interesting piece of physics right here now. He started to think about the laws of motion that were affecting the wobble in the plate. He jotted down some equations on his napkin and then went on about his business.

A few days later he found this napkin and it reminded him and he started playing with it. He said it reminded him that it connected to things he was working on in particle physics. He said that over the next few weeks all these equations started to rush out of him like champagne out of a bottle. He said, ‘but all I was doing was playing with it for the fun of it’. But he said it led to the equation that went on to be the basis of him winning the Nobel Prize.

Very often our greatest achievements come from our most playful activities.
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