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Rewild your imagination

by Sinéad Cullen

Take a moment to picture what an imaginative childhood looks like. 

What are the surroundings? 

What does an imaginative child get up to? 

What words describe this?

For me, the words that come up are freedom, spaciousness, exploration, open-ended play, and an element of risk. Growing up in the 70s in the Irish countryside with quieter roads my friends and I had the freedom to explore outside and on our own. Most of my childhood memories are of creating houses, and all sorts of worlds in the garden, local forests and in the tunnels underneath hedgerows. We were wild things!

However, more recently, creativity research is showing that imagination amongst children is declining - Due to the rise of individualistic cultures and the stronger emphasis on rationality, science, knowledge and information which weakens the use of imagination and intuition (K H Kim and Mulgan).

Current education systems foster hierarchy and conformity through scoring systems and mass preparation for the same tests. They avoid collaboration, as points are for individual achievement. They focus on the results of test scores and emphasise select focused fields.

As a result, children are losing originality, curiosity and passion, and avoiding risk-taking. Their visions are narrower, their expectations are lower and due to extensive screen time short-sightedness, both literally and figuratively is increasing rapidly.

Amongst adults too there is a lack of imagination due to lack of time, increased stress, distraction and a culture of individualism and the complexity of the world. 

And there is a surprising lack of funding and research taking place in institutions working on social imagination and radical social change ideas. Innovation in the military and business receives more funding and brainpower than in society, which coincides with social stagnation. (Mulgan)

At a time of upheaval and challenge, we are suffering a deficit of optimism and social imagination as we struggle to picture a desirable or even possible future. This is leading to a sense of lost agency as well as a general malaise around, and increasing fear for the future (The rights studio).

People can imagine their own lives or an apocalyptic collective future but not, it seems, a positive collective future. I, for one, don’t believe our future has its seeds in military or business breakthroughs, trickle-down economics, industrialised education, increased individualisation and business as usual. 

Plant a Tree - Grow a School: Students planting native Irish trees in an effort to rewild pockets of native Irish woodland

I believe our future lies in the rewilding of our imaginations.

For too long a time, wild has meant something crazy, uncontrolled, violent, savage or extreme — it has been the opposite of civilised, colonised and obedient. A wild animal is something to be very cautious of. A wild child is one who is unruly and it is hoped that wildness is something that teenagers will ‘grow’ out of.

The Miriam Webster dictionary defines wild as living in a state of nature; not tamed or domesticated… 

Rewilding is the process of bringing something back to its authentic and natural state, reversing the process of domestication and returning to a more self-willed state. 

Rewilding people includes learning from the standpoint of indigenous people — people who remain in an intimate relationship with the earth they come from.

I have been thinking about ways that we can begin to rewild our imaginations.

They include: Getting away from screens and…

  • Allowing time to be bored — it can be really uncomfortable if you’ve been avoiding it — but try it for a few minutes each day.

  • Spending time in nature. Click here for an article I wrote on ways nature can enrich your creativity.

  • Rewilding your garden or allotment or if you have access to a patch of land, let some of it go wild. Watch what wildness looks like — don’t spray or weed or interfere — let yourself be curious about what wildness is.

  • Supporting rewilding projects, like Plant a tree, Grow a school

  • Reading outside your standard perspective to challenge your thinking and imagination.

  • Coming back to your physical senses where you can access your imagination more readily. Click here for an article I wrote on ways to come back to your senses.

  • Listening to music without lyrics.

  • Writing for fun e.g. a poem about something ordinary or imagining the story behind images and art – creating a narrative.

  • Playing improvisational games e.g. Pictionary, charades, Rapidough

  • Learning a musical instrument

  • Having stimulating conversations — asking powerful questions. Click here for an article I wrote on the art of powerful questions.

Rewild children’s imagination, by...

  • Supporting them to stand up and have their say. You can read about WCSS processes such as the School Meeting, System Consensing and Transformative Practice (TP) in John’s recent post here: Our Processes 

  • Spending time with them exploring in nature.  At our ‘wild’ site in West Cork children have access to woodland and rivers where they can explore, climb, build and discover. 

  • Creating songs, stories, poems and plays with them.

  • Teaching or learning with them how to mend and make. We have been doing knitting and crochet sessions at the school in the last term at WCSS.. 

  • Creating community containers for a child’s imagination. Click here for an article I wrote on lessons I learned living in Eco-villages.

  • Showing them how to grow food and/or support locally grown food.  We have our own school garden at WCSS, from where we get to make soups and stews well into the winter months, and our teens taking part in the Gaisce awards are also  working in the local Community Garden.

Rewilding our collective imagination, by...

  • Finding or creating a group or a think tank where you can discuss, explore, share and develop new ideas.

  • Reducing the number of items that you buy and learning how to mend and make using your hands.

  • Asking challenging questions of our politicians — not about short-term gains but long-term solutions for our children and the coming generations.

  • Using the platforms you have to amplify those whose voices go unnoticed - who can you raise up? 

We live in an unprecedented time of great change. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and imagination — current and future crises will surely test our capacity to imagine and invent new ways of living. 

I believe that like never before our future generations need us to engage our imaginations to offer them the best chances of thriving.

Our imaginations are the golden threads that connect our bodies, hearts and minds, our past, our dreams, and our beautiful future.

See what lands from this piece and what inspires you, maybe let yourself follow one golden thread this week to unleash and rewild a small parcel of your own abundant imagination.


Note from Sinéad: I wrote this piece originally a few years ago - before joining WCSS - my sentiments remain the same and I am glad to be part of a community  that supports rewilding. You can find my original article here.

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