Speaking of Imagination by Clay Clarkson


[Greetings, fellow rabbit types. I’m Sam Smith, but you might know me better as “Bizbaz the Foolhardy,” or perhaps as “S.D. Smith.” Most likely of all, you haven’t ever heard of me and that’s probably safest for you and any predator canaries you might know. Speaking of canaries, I’ve been a contributor here at ye olde Rabbit Room for several years now and last year helped to launch an ally-site focused on kids and imagination. This beast was called Story Warren. Pete has asked if we would join in here fairly regularly featuring a post from said Story Warren. That’s awful handsome of him and I’m delighted to be able to be the go-between. Without much further verbosity, I present our first such post. It’s by Clay Clarkson, coiner of the name “Hutchmoot,” father of RR (and SW) contributor Sarah Clarkson, author of Educating the Whole-Hearted Child (which is awesome), wearer of beard, knower of things. Clay has been a crucial player in Story Warren’s development and it’s pretty easy to see why. –Sam]


“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

Henry David Thoreau

There is a language of imagination. Let’s call it imaginationish.

It’s not actually a language, but more of a universal dialect. It is using words to describe things that the eye does not see, the ear does not hear, the senses do not sense.

We always knew when our children were speaking imaginationish. They would hear a symphony and begin to describe a forest teeming with life and mystery. They would look at a painting and walk into its colors and lines as they narrated a story of their journey. They would watch a movie and begin to think out loud about the deeper spiritual meanings of scenes and symbols.

We never sat down and created a plan to make our children imaginative and creative. We did, though, deliberately create an atmosphere in our home that was rich in spoken and printed words—reading lots of books, discussing lots of topics, experiencing many forms of art and creativity. It was the air they breathed in our home—they inhaled it to fill their curious lungs, it oxygenated the verbal blood that fed their creative brains, and they exhaled it as the language of imagination. Call it immersion learning, I guess.

If there is such a thing as imaginationish, it isn’t learned from a workbook. It is grown and cultivated at home in a print-rich environment and verbally-enriched atmosphere, and it is fed with abundant and nutritious words. God—who is the Word, and created us to be people of his Word and of words—has given parents the privilege to create that creative ecosystem. It all starts with words.

Vocabulary is critical to an active imagination. A child’s ability to imagine things beyond their own senses is directly related to the depth and breadth of their vocabulary. It takes little imagination to realize the limitations of limited vocabulary on creativity, or on believing spiritual truths for that matter. However, the more words your child has with which to express himself, the greater will be the scope and intensity of what he can imagine. The stronger your child’s grasp of language, the richer will be her own creativity and ability to wonder about things beyond her five senses.

To paraphrase Thoreau, your children naturally know how to look at things, but you can give them the supernatural ability to truly see beyond the material world. You can give them the language of imaginationish. But you’ve got to be speaking it first. Filling the air of your home with words, reading books that take the power of language seriously, and feasting on all the arts—paintings, music, poetry, and more. If you do, then you can sit back and watch the seeds of imagination that you plant and cultivate in your children blossom into fruitful vines of creativity. Your imaginative children will help the world not just look at, but see the God who created us all.


Illustration by Zach Franzen



  1. Rachel Muller

    In 1970 when I was two years-old, my parents immigrated to Canada from the U.S. in a Volkswagon van loaded with all their belongings. We were not financially wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. For the first few years my father supported our family as a shoe store clerk. We lived in a series of tiny apartments, and kept our secondhand clothing in orange crates. But my parents didn’t consider themselves poor. They were young, educated, and resourceful, and they gave my siblings and me a rich childhood indeed. It was especially fertile ground for the “language of imaginationish”. We didn’t have a tv in those early years. (A neighbor eventually took pity on us and showed up with one, but it rarely got turned on.) What we did have was music, and endless stacks of books from the library, and weekly excursions to provincial parks, or museums, or art galleries – depending on the season.
    My own children are fluent in the language of imaginationish as well. My husband and I married and started a family young – knowing that it was possible to give children rich childhoods without a lot of money. Our oldest three are young adults now, and all extremely creative in their own ways. Our youngest two (ages 4 and 6) would hardly notice if we gave away all their toys. They spend most of their free time creating – pictures, stories and entire books made from scrap paper, and “inventions” of various kinds with materials from the recycling bin. (And scotch tape. It’s very hard to keep a stock of scotch tape in our house.) They have a lot of free time to create and be children. I think one of the biggest gifts my parents gave me, and that I in turn am determined to give my children, was/is an absence of over-programming. Kids require unstructured time and space to learn the language of imaginationish. And that even more beautiful language: wonder.

  2. Taryn Hayes

    Ah! Immersion-inspired imaginationish! 🙂 I love that. Thank you so very much for the reminder. Sometimes it is easy to let the busyness of daily chores and activities crowd out imaginationish. It’s a beautiful language and methinks our little home needs a little more practice towards fluency. Thanks Clay (and Sam!) for this – I’ve always found inspiration in the writings of the Clarkson family.

  3. Donna S

    Looking forward to passing this on to my adult children! I have a dear friend whose seven-year-old daughter told her recently “Mom, I’m writing a chapter book and it is so exciting, there is danger in the second chapter”.

  4. Anne Marie

    The week after flying home from a cross-country trip with my husband and pre-school children, I caught my children playing airport.

    They packed their backpacks with everything they would need, flew from my daughter’s room into the living room, unpacked all their stuff, and then pretended they were at Grandma’s house.

    When they were done, they put their stuff back in their backpacks, boarded the airplane, flew back to my daughter’s room and unpacked because they were home. Took my breath away.

    They’ve been thinking their own thoughts and acting on them ever since. It still takes my breath away.

  5. Loren Warnemuende

    Thank you for the challenge and encouragement to create homes where our kids’ imaginations will grow. I love immersing my kids in rich stories, and seeing how they take them and run forward. Recently my three-year-old stuffed his teddy bear into an old percolator coffee pot the kids use as a toy, placing the lid on Brown Bear’s head. “It’s a spaceship,” he told me, and the lid was the helmet. I was sure he’d gotten the idea from his older sisters, and was amazed to find that he’d come up with it on his own. So much potential in those little minds!

  6. April Pickle

    My 5-year-old daughter, Ruthie, has a good friend at church. His name is Jake. Jake has a hearing problem and when he speaks, I have a hard time understanding him, and therefore I have a hard time communicating with him. But not Ruthie. She understands him perfectly. And he understands her perfectly, too. Sometimes the two of them use words, but most of the time they don’t. They just seem to read each other’s mind’s. Moms have commented on how interesting and beautiful it is to watch them heartily and lovingly create games and structures and play together.
    Vocabulary is certainly useful (I used it in telling this story), but I’m not sure about it being “crucial.”

  7. Matthew

    Imaginationish. It’s the heavenly language, isn’t it? God spoke, and there was light, and the sun, and Saturn, and dirt, and storks, and pirana, and beavers, and then humans.

    I think you all are very right to point out the importance of time and space to creativity. Experience has also been a vital catalyst to my imagination. Travelling, exploring, reading, and listening have provided me with a wealth of material from which to create. But as Thoreau implies, we mustn’t only look but SEE. Live life fully. Look up once in a while. See the sky. Climb a tree or crawl in a hole or lay dawn and see the world from a different angle once in a while.

  8. Beth H

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. And the comment in your bio about scotch tape!!! Yes! 3 of my 4 little (youngest is 18 months) go through scotch tape so fast! I’m encouraged by your words to keep buying it and providing the tools for their imagination, even if it is only access to the recycling bin and patience and grace for the wonderfully messy creations that clutter our space. 🙂

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