Imaginary Worlds and Creative Giftedness

As a little boy, Satoshi Tajiri loved the outdoors and was especially fascinated with insects. His interest in collecting and observing different insects in his hometown of Machida near Tokyo, earned him the title of “Dr. Bug” among his friends. He spent several hours everyday finding new insects, and understanding their world and unique behaviors. In his own words, “They fascinated me. For one thing, they kind of moved funny. They were odd. Every time I found a new insect, it was mysterious to me. And the more I searched for insects, the more I found.

His fascination with insects and his interest in video games led Satoshi to create a world of pocket monsters, which eventually became Pokémon, one of the most lucrative game concepts.

Creating imaginary worlds, or paracosms, is not unusual among children and are an indication of creative giftedness. Famous examples of paracosms include the fantasy kingdoms of Gondal, Angria and Gaaldine created by the Emily, Anne, Charlotte and Branwell Bronte. The Bronte sisters went on to be accomplished novelists and poets. Compared to the typical imaginary play, paracosms are much more complex and elaborate requiring a sustained interest over several months or years. The Bronte family actively engaged with their fantasy worlds for several years and frequently revisited them in adulthood.

Michele Root-Bernstein, creativity scholar who studies paracosms, found that the prevalence of creating fantasy worlds in childhood were significant higher among recipients of MacArthur genius awards, a group that is known for their creative contributions among and across disciplines. She believes that the creativity involved in creating paracosms prepares children for bigger creative achievements in adulthood. The kinds of skills required in building fantasy worlds, like imagining, empathizing, modeling, problem solving and rule-breaking are exactly the kinds of skills needed for high creative accomplishments. As she explains, “childhood worldplay does appear to provide an early apprenticeship in absorption and persistence, discovery, synthesis, and modeling.

Beyond problem solving and creativity, such imaginative play has also been found to have other psychological benefits. Creating imaginary worlds has been found to build a sense of self among children and also provide a sense of control and order.

These creative and psychological benefits come largely from a child’s ability to create their world, as opposed to simply participating in existing virtual worlds like in some video games. Dr. Bernstein suggests encouraging children to expand and elaborate on the virtual worlds they encounter through games.

While these pursuits in and of themselves stimulate imaginative participation in invented worlds, the child’s part in that invention remains largely a passive or, at any rate, a reactive one. The child consumes a world imagined by others and does not construct or create her own. Unless she furthers the play experience in book or video game by adding to it some imaginative construction that is under her full creative control, she is not engaged in the creative behaviors and processes of imaginary world invention.

The long lasting benefits of imaginary worldplay prompted us to create a project-based learning program where students get to experiment with paracosms. In this program, elementary aged students will create imaginary worlds, with real and fictional characteristics and then dive deeper in to specific aspects. Over several weeks, we will  study ancient civilizations, modern laws and customs, animal societies and other topics to help students refine their own fantasy worlds, and at the same time build a deeper appreciation for worlds that already exist.

We hope that the program not just helps students learn topics from school curriculum but also provides a stimulating playground to build their own creative potential.