Synopsis: The Grammar of Fantasy

As the poet Wallace Stevens wrote “the imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things”. Gianni Rodari in “The Grammar of Fantasy: an introduction to the Art of Inventing Stories” dedicated to the city of Reggio Emilia, suggests that “to neglect the imagination is also to impoverish children’s worlds and to narrow their hopes.”

Gianni Rodari is an Italian author of children’s books, an Educator and an activist. He was a forerunner of a magic realism but one with a political commitment, his stories always being grounded in some form of reality as he firmly believed “it is through the most imaginative turn of events possible that children can learn the truth about reality.”

Many of Rodari’s ideas were developed in the schools of Reggio Emilia, with pedagogy being closely linked to the educational debates in Italy, however, there are clear links between Rodari’s intervention in Reggio and the need to develop a stimulating grammar of the imagination in English speaking countries. Arguably, in the view of Jack Zipes (a Professor and lecturer on the subject of fairy tales, their evolution, and their social and political role in civilizing processes), Rodari’s ideas will never age because “Rodari grasped children’s need to play with life’s rules by using the grammar of their own imaginations.”

So how do we free children’s imaginations? Rodari suggests that, as parents and educators we need to collaborate, become animators, bringing to life creative play and by doing so, allow a child to become a creator and a producer of values and culture. Rodari believes a child’s imagination has its own grammar that can be cultivated for beneficial ends through this animation, while the theme of the fantastic can stem from a single word or a combination of words. Henri Wallon wrote in his book “Les Origines de la pensée chez l’enfant” (The origins of thinking in the child) that thought is formed in pairs on the predication of there being a binary structure; meaning that, for example, the idea of soft cannot be formed before or after the idea of hard, but simultaneously. Henri discussed the idea of stories being born out of a “fantastic binominal” using two words sufficiently strange or different from the other so that the imagination is compelled to create a relationship between the two and to create a fantastic whole.

“Hypotheses are nets” says the poet Novalis “you throw out your net and sooner or later you catch something.” Asking a “what if” question is a type of fantastical hypothesis where a narrative can multiply spontaneously into infinity. Children take pleasure in the most comical questions particularly where a question is asked of a child loaded with meaning, representing personal experience, their community or surroundings. In telling a story they use their imagination to make an active connection to reality.

So how else does Rodari suggest we could conjure up a child’s imagination?

The fairy tale reversed

The purposeful reversal of a story line, such as the heroine becoming the evil force, might lead to a parody but can also be a starting point for an independent story that develops automatically in another direction.

Rodari urges taking a cautious approach with young children, who are more conservative; they want to hear a tale time and time again, they take pleasure in recognising the words and learning them in proper sequence. They need order and reassurance. However, as a child gets older Rodari considers them to be capable of distancing themselves from the story or song resulting in a deliberate mistake renewing their interest, reviving the story and taking it off on a different track.

The possibility of an after

What happens after a fairy tale has finished can be fascinating to a child and a discussion can bring a fresh analysis of the story on a new intuitive level.

Automatic fantasising

Adventures can be deduced logically (perhaps a type of fantastical logic questions Rodari) from characteristics, whether the character is real or imaginary. Materials such as glass, ice or wood dictate how a character might act, move or interrelate with its surroundings. Glass is fragile and perhaps thoughts can be read because of it being transparent in nature, whilst a character made of wood or of ice may burn or melt allowing a child’s imagination to play between the real and the imaginary in a see-saw manner.

Animating objects

Stories can be invented by animating objects which leads to personification. A table can become a train or a roof to shelter from the rain, a bowl can be used as a hat or a spoon balanced on a nose might personify a character making them identifiable.

Incorporating puppetry

Puppetry is a permanent fixture in the schools of Reggio Emilia; the puppet theatre being a place where children build storying together or work independently. Sometimes children never speak to each other and communicate only through the puppets, choosing to represent themselves or explore new identities.

Child as the protagonist

In telling stories to children, parents often use the child as the protagonist and in doing so, Rodari contests that the adult is unwittingly helping the child to imagine themselves and imagine their own destiny. The use of familiar allusions can support this and can reinforce a child’s interests and attention as they stimulate the mechanism of identification.

Deliberate mistakes with everyday objects

Rodari reminds us that ‘the laugh of superiority’ (taken from “The child’s sense of the comic” by Raffaele La Porta) is among the first forms of laughter a child is capable of, having observed a parent making a deliberate mistake; for example, putting a spoon to an ear rather than the mouth might make a child marvel at how, although their parent is big, they do not know how to use a spoon in the proper way. Rodari believes we can take advantage of errors, inserting a banal character into an extraordinary context.

The fascination with fairy tales

Fairy tales, says Rodari, help to structure the child’s consciousness and establish relationships between me and others, me and things, invented and genuine. Fairy tales are a useful initiation into humanity, the world of history and can provide clues about reality which he or she does not know and clues about the future which he or she still does not think.

Rodari proclaims the reading of a fairy tale to be an instrument for keeping the adult nearby, a time when a parent is dedicated and participates without distraction. With perhaps the presence of a parent being central to the child overcoming challenges in the narrative, such as fear or uncertainty; by listening to their parent’s voice a child draws upon their strength and courage to finish the final chapter.


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