Memory, Imagination, and How to Avoid Boredom

Rote memorization.  Do you use it in your homeschool?

There’s a popular educational trend that pooh-poohs rote memory in favor of imaginative and critical thinking. I think this is because too often children have been required to memorize facts and procedures they did not understand. Unfortunately, instead of seeking to improve conceptual understanding so that the material being memorized  by rote is meaningful,  many educators today emphasize discovery learning and creativity while foregoing rote memorization.

But this, I believe, is putting the cart before the horse. In his clever satire, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Anthony Esolen writes:

Without the library of memory…. the imagination simply does not have much to think about or play with. 

Just think about it: to bake a cake, you need the ingredients, and it’s hard to be creative about baking a cake if you only have a few ingredients. Similarly, to compose a beautiful poem, you need to have in your mind a rich vocabulary with which to conjure up imagery. To solve a mathematical problem creatively, you need to have command of several  mathematical algorithms and  formulae to draw from.  The more blocks of Lego a child has to use, the more creative he can be. (Although after playing with two pieces of Lego, my son told me today that there are 120 different ways to put them together!)

Sparky’s latest Lego creation

Even imaginative play requires knowledge of certain facts. A child cannot play at dragons and fairies if he does not know what they are. But the more facts he knows about them, the more creative he can be in his play. When I watch my own children engage in imaginary play, I notice that much of it is a reenactment of books they have read and loved to the point that they inadvertently memorized the story line and even specific conversations. 

This is why the first level in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives is Knowledge, specifically “the recall of specifics and universals, the recall of methods and processes, or the recall of a pattern, structure, or setting.”  This is why rote memorization — as passe as it may seem — is so important. 

So the first step in cultivating the imagination is to fill the memory with facts, ideas, rich vocabulary, beautiful images, verse upon verse of poetry, and so on. For memory is the food of the imagination.

However, If we want to stifle the imagination, Esolen writes,  we should hold that memory in check. We can do this in two ways. We can encourage laziness, by never insisting that young people actually master, for example, the rules of multiplication, or the location of cities and rivers and lakes on the globe. Then we can allow what is left of the memory to be filled with trash.

Now, of course, memorizing material takes effort. But with consistent practice, a young mind can become accustomed to it.  It’s like exercising a muscle: the more you work it, the stronger it becomes.  It is important for children to become accustomed to the discipline of memorizing because it teaches them to study hard and to not shy away from mental exertion.

Memorizing also prevents mental torpidity, which is what happens when children spend too much time in front of the screen.  Children who are on the TV, internet, social media, or video games daily begin to rely too much on outside stimuli for entertainment.  Unlike reading books, where the reader has to use their imagination to picture  the scenes and hear the sounds and conversations, watching television is a passive activity that stagnates the mind.  Children who spend hours in front of the screen each day lose their ability to imagine. They become passive consumers instead of active producers. Moreover, these are the children who quickly become bored. Unless parents firmly steer these kids away from over-use of the screen, these children will end up in the crippling cycle of boredom and needing to be in front of the screen to avoid further boredom. 

Imaginative and creative children, on the other hand, are rarely bored. I remember a little boy my parents once babysat when I was in high school. He was only about four or five, but he had a fantastic imagination. He would spend hours (and I literally mean hours) happily playing with a single matchbox car: one moment it was a race car zooming away from the bad guys, another moment it was a rocket ship launching into outer space, then it was a ship chasing down pirates. I never saw him bored; his vivid imagination kept him busy for hours on end.

Of course some children are naturally endowed with a vivid imagination while others are not. But we should bolster the imagination and creativity of children who are lacking in that area. And we should continue to nourish the imaginations of children who are naturally imaginative and creative. 

How? Start with memorization, which feeds the imagination and disciplines the mind.  As soon as your children are able to repeat nursery rhymes,  start your children on memorizing poetry. Then once they are of school age, make your children spend time each day on memory work: poetry, catechism, vocabulary, math facts, Latin words and forms, scientific terms, historical dates, the rules of spelling and grammar, states and capitals, countries and capitals, the names of birds and insects, famous works of art, and so on. 

Not that your kids need to memorize all these every year,  but they should be doing some memory work each year.  Encourage your children to memorize facts about topics they are interested in. The content is not as important as the process. However, we do want to fill our children’s minds with what is good, true, and beautiful. And when they memorize, our children should memorize some of their material for the long term, not just to pass a test, not just for a week or two. For example, when my kids memorize a poem, they have to keep it memorized for the whole semester. I love it when a younger sibling is reciting a poem by memory and along comes an older sibling joining in on the same poem he/she had learned years ago. 

When your kids memorize cumulatively and for the long term, the material really gets filed into their long term memory. I am often amazed at all the facts my mother-in-law has remembered from grammar school. The good nuns who taught her knew how to drill in material through rote memory, and sixty years later she can still recall facts about the animal kingdoms and the rules of grammar. 

We do need to ensure that the material our children are memorizing is meaningful and understandable for them. If a child is going to memorize a date in history, he should know why that date is worth learning — what was significant about that event and how did it effect the lives of people who lived during that time and place? If a child is going to memorize a poem, he should know the  meaning of each of the words along with the meaning of poem as a whole. If a child is going to memorize amo, amas, amat, he should know the Latin translation and that -o signifies the first person singular, -s signifies the second person singular, and -t the third.  Some children memorize chant-like patterns such as amo, amas, amat without understanding or effort, and that is fine. We often see this in our homeschool: younger children learn by osmosis and pick up things by memory that they don’t yet understand. However, if you are going to require a concerted effort, you need to at least make sure your children comprehend the material they are memorizing.

Finally,  memorization alone is not enough to cultivate creativity and the imagination.  Esolen writes of ten ways to destroy the imagination in order to suggest ten ways to nurture it, and they’re worth reading. But even more simply, in addition to training the memory, here are the most basic ways to nurture the imagination and stave off boredom:

  • Keep your kids away from the screen as much as possible.
  • Give them ample time for unstructured play, preferably outside.
  • Fill your home with quality books and novels.  Read books together.
  • Give your children toys that encourage creativity and pretend play, such as Lego, Playmobile, craft supplies, etc.  But don’t give them too many toys, because you want to leave room for their imaginations to fill in the blanks and for your children to exercise resourcefulness. 

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