Imagination, Storytelling, New Media: The Mission Is possible...


“… when you’re looking you may feel that there’s such a little space but - how shocking! - here’s the space more enormous that I know! ”

Gek Tessaro, “Il cuore di Chisciotte”, 2012

To introduce the topic, I’ll start with citing this little extract from the children’s book “Il cuore di Chisciotte” by Italian artist, author and illustrator Gek Tessaro, who in this poetic re-elaboration of the famous novel is speaking about his protagonist hero – a dream rider for antonomasia.  Imagination … what is imagination and why is it so important to our lives and development? Why is it so important to nurture and take care of it throughout childhood?

Together with the exploration and experimentation of reality, the beating heart of imagination is the force that drives our lives, that conveys our emotions and feelings in symbolic representations, that ultimately allows us to establish authentic relationships and gives a unique sense of direction to our “journey” on earth. So, the point for educators is: how do we nurture, increase and foster this innate feature of the human soul?

Although imagination may be innate, in order for it to become a mature part of our creativity, it needs to go through a long winding road of yellow bricks (as Dorothy did in the “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, by Frank Baum) paved by contexts, relationships, materials, tools and methods. Children must not be superficially instructed in what they “have to do”, but provided with laboratory spaces, methodologies, tools to explore and develop their creativity with all languages and forms that might be best suited for them (see, for instance, Malaguzzi et al in “The Hundred Languages of Children”; a masterpiece in recent pedagogy of the Reggio Emilia inspired approach.

One very effective method is reading and storytelling, playing with children and inventing stories with them. The famous German novelist W. Goethe says that, in infancy, storytelling with his mother had a very strong and unsuspected influence on him. Or, maybe, one could creatively adapt to the changes of the time, as suggested, for example, by Italian teacher and children’s author Gianni Rodari, who in his book “Le Favole al Telefono” imagines a father who, always being away for work, every evening telephones his young daughter to tell her a story.

In fact, by gradually introducing children to the widespread and worldwide heritage of stories and symbolic resources of our culture by using good quality illustrated books, children are given lots more than simply ‘a story’.  Their imagination is nurtured; they are given structures, figures, plots they will be able to use to develop their thinking and communications skills, and most importantly, the effective warmth of the voice, feelings and emotions of the narrator, if this is done with sincerity.

In this sense, storytelling represents a fundamental activity to foster the social and cultural development of the children. It provides them with symbolic resources with which to reshape their life experiences into living and meaningful forms.

As is written in the Venezuelan constitution; “Children who do not have parents to tell them stories, have the right to ask the closer adult that is present in the neighborhood”.

Such culture for children, promoting storytelling as part of the educational relationship and endorsing the spontaneous symbolic play activity of children as a powerful and essential means of exploring and learning new things, would be probably be enough to build a great pedagogical framework in the 21st century. However, we live in a new society, different from the one we knew until just few years ago: a society where digital media is everywhere around us and in use in everyday life. A remarkable change is taking place.

Touch technologies and intuitive ways of interaction have opened this new digital age to even the youngest children. Multimedia apps and an internet full of audiovisual contents, available at a single touch of the finger, represent incredibly attractive stimuli for new generations. Whereas adults still have not fully thought through the right approaches to harness the ongoing transformation.

The matter is of course very complex, but in the digital revolution we need to bear in mind that, although media provides new ways and opportunities, the strong predominance of remote, digital communication tends to reduce the emotional engagement that is essential to physical relationships. We must remember the scientific evidence that shows that “non-verbal” is still the most important component in any human communication[1].

Therefore, on the subject of education in digital media, an important question is: how can children use new media as a creative tool for authentic self-expression and communication? i.e., in presence and relationship, allowing spontaneous and symbolic play-based activities?

i-Theatre provides an opportunity for educators to cope with the media trap. It is a multimedia authoring laboratory for story-creation and storytelling dedicated to children of 4-10 years.

The i-Theatre (theatre of moving images) is a mixture of drama approach combined with new technologies. In the same way that animation or a puppetry show is created through a series of performed actions which support symbolic play, i-Theatre also provides a way for children to animate their drawings and create multimedia stories (movie clips) without losing their sense of presence and listening to each other.

What i-Theatre adds is the use of an experimental laboratory approach that starts with the child’s drawings on paper and elaborates the story in the physical world by using materials, manipulating objects and developing art techniques. Only after this process of creation is the art work passed seamlessly into the digital system to record the work, offer opportunities for editing and reflection, and creates an animation in a straightforward and intuitive way.

In doing so, the child’s experience with the i-Theatre involves the combined use of traditional languages (body, verbal, image, music), the relationships in small groups, the dramatization of the child’s story, and the editing, watching and reflecting upon the story. Using this lab approach, pedagogical projects in kindergartens, nurseries and primary schools have already shown very promising results on children’s engagement in learning (see, for instance, “Technologies and social integration processes” by Trentino Federation of Kindergartens, in the i-Theatre website below).

The experimental activities have shown that early educators who have used the i-Theatre in school settings and nurseries can benefit from a more creative use of technology within a holistic pedagogical framework. It works best when the digital and physical worlds are not taught, nor perceived, as separate things, and where new media is used not in substitution of, but as a further natural and instrumental extension of children’s traditional languages.

Digital storytelling is another way to nurture imagination and symbolic development. It is also very necessary nowadays in order to raise children’s cultural awareness about media, so their learning and development emerges not around a ‘virtual’ world but in a strong context of relationship, through activities of symbolic play strongly rooted on physical perceptions, in reality and in a sense of presence.

[1] It is commonly accepted that non-verbal communication represents two-thirds of all communication. Some linguists would even go so far as to say that more than 90% of our daily communication is nonverbal. A study conducted in 1972 by Albert Mehrabian suggested that messages delivered through a neutral tone are perceived and received in the following proportions:

Body movements (especially facial expressions) 55%Voice aspect (volume, tone, rhythm) 38%Verbal aspect (words) 7%

Hence, the effectiveness of a message depends only minimally by the literal meaning of what is said, and the way in which the message is communicated and perceived is influenced heavily by factors of nonverbal communication. In a way, what is important is the emerging “intention”, the sub-text, more than the “text” itself. The study, of course, has its limitations in the communication of emotionally charged messages, and the proportions highly vary depending on the “emotional temperature” of the communication, the context, etc. However other scientific studies are ongoing and confirm this data.

Although our educational systems focus on the verbal and cognitive aspects in the child’s learning and development (e.g., by classification, tests, separation, numbering…), we should place much more importance on the rich aspects involved in environmental communication (i.e., the ones related to non-verbal and para-verbal aspects), and in the physical connection and coordination between imagination and action / body and mind. With creative play, of course, that is the way children naturally experiment the world. This is the focus of the idea behind i-Theatre, and one that the pedagogical research community is confirming by experimental results.

Federico Albiero, i-Theatre Coordinator, Edutech Srl, Italy



Photo of children working with i-Theatre is courtesy of Coopselios Cooperative Society of educational services to persons, using the instrument within Reggio Emilia pedagogical approach.

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