Cultivating Motivation Through Imagination and Self-Determination in Young Learners

In the early 1990s, while I was working at the State University of Ukraine in Odessa, I attempted to implement new elementary education programs that would encourage children to learn about themselves and the world around them through a logical, complex educational structure. For the regional Advanced Training Institute for Teachers in Odessa, I introduced a creative approach to elementary education that fulfilled my goal of including multiple distinct disciplines into students’ self-perception, which would then be incorporated into their larger conceptual world. In this vein, I suggested students learn such standard disciplines as art, language, math, and science at the starting point of their immediate environment, from that point extending their knowledge and skills into the realms of family, school, and society, among others, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The Formation of a Culture of Self-Determination for Young Learners through the Humanization of the Pedagogical Process


I originally developed this curriculum of self-determination as a management tool to demonstrate the outcome of connecting, through a holistic lens, interrelated subjects. I wanted to show that an effective educational curriculum is not merely an aggregation of isolated knowledge areas, such as literacy and science, but an integrated system stemming from critical analysis, observation, original thought, and, primarily, imagination and self-determination.

This comprehensive tool accounted for the individual characteristics and values of every child and was intended to prepare them for life events in a manner both safe and creative. This curriculum also targeted cultivation of social and emotional intelligence of children and exploration of different perspectives. Most importantly, this curriculum was an attempt to cultivate motivation based on self-determination and imagination, as demonstrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Cultivating motivation through imagination and self-determination.

Motivation pertains to providing a reason to initiate, guide, and maintain goal-oriented behaviors. Providing a child with a reason to do something does not have to be minimized to a dictation, force, guilt, or reward. It should, rather, grow from a child’s natural curiosity, imagination, and urges to experiment. Motivation in children should be supported by an unconscious desire to explore. This process can be empowered as the educator provides role-modeling and scaffolding, the latter of which refers to supportive problem solving that incorporates instructions and skills for students to acquire more independence and better understanding. The major goal of imaginative and self-determined learning is to create the aha moments while encouraging children to have fun and make discoveries.

Collaboration, coaching, listening, and sharing are essential tools for motivating children, who respond positively when adults display interest and participate in their activity. While natural motivation is unconscious and rooted in natural forces and desires, instrumental or rational motivation is a result of a meaningful or logical reason. In both cases, the process of motivation is cyclical—learners’ thoughts or reasons boost the actions or behaviors that, at the end, result in performances or productions. The process of motivation incorporate desires, beliefs, attitudes, drives, interests, goals, efforts, and arguments.

In my book The Formation of a Culture of Self-Determination for Young Learners through the Humanization of the Pedagogical Process, I demonstrated that engaging imagination in a learning process is key to motivation and success (1995). Imagination, as the capacity to produce images or thoughts that cannot be experienced through senses, is one of the mind’s most powerful abilities. Imagination improves genuine interest and promotes deeper patterns of meaning in learning. Visualizing consequences in a learning process improves children’s capacity to make connections, compare, and contrast.

Creative envisioning helps a child think creatively, which enables the avoidance of experience-dependent labelling. Children’s experience pertains to their direct exposure to stimuli, which helps them make connections between this stimuli and responses. Experiences in early childhood affect problem-solving abilities, intellect, and behavior in all subsequent stages of development. Imagination results in deeper patterns of thought and improved understanding, which, in turn, promote the visualization of consequences, personal involvement, and motivation. The process of motivation is demonstrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3: The process of motivation.

In my aforementioned book, I analyzed two hundred-plus studies on the need to promote self-determination on a cultural scale, accounting for aesthetic-ethical norms and creativity, these studies encompassing the works of Amonashvili, Baller, Gening, Guzman, Veksler, Vygotsky, and Zankov. It was my goal to demonstrate how education was shifting from mechanical memorization to a process of active involvement that accounted for creative comprehension, imagination, and motivation.

The teaching strategies involved in my recommended curriculum seamlessly corresponded to children’s levels of interest and comprehension, as well as to their needs. In response to such critical considerations as children’s developmental differences, cultural and family values, and cultural sensitivity, the integrated program promoted making choices, learning conceptually, learning via hands-on experience, and, of course, creativity.

As I emphasized in my book—through diverse examples from literature and the arts, meetings with creative individuals, role-play, and trips—children are effectively engaged via experience and imagination. Imaginative “trips” should be also incorporated into learning. Thus, in my curriculum, learning resembled a voyage through history that introduced students to amazing creators.  Young learners, in the imaginary time machine, would “travel” to the art studios of great artists such as DaVinci and Michelangelo to learn determination and creativity. There is a strong connection between child’s experience and imagination.  Making sense of experience empowers imagination and nurtures motivation. Imagination incorporates child’s emotions, ability to elaborate, and causality. Allowing self-expression gives children the space and freedom to reveal their personalities or feelings through process-oriented activities. Every child has the potential to imagine, but motivation is required to send this potential into production.

There is a difference between an autonomous and regulated motivation in children. Autonomous motivation refers to the natural urge to imagine and create as a resource of passion and enjoyment. Regulated motivation is expressed through pressure, demands, control, or reward. While this type of motivation promotes productivity based on a reliance on external factors and instant success, self-determining motivation promotes deep involvement with the activity and free exploration based on personal goals and needs, and it thus encourages stronger feelings toward the project. In controlled motivation, students may experience temporarily increased self-worth, based on praise they receive an accomplishment, but they do not independence and self-determination. If learning naturally promotes a pleasure of discovery, it is highly motivational. A child can be deprived of the intrinsic pleasure of artistic self-expression when faced with unreasonably high expectations, forced performance, restrictions on experimentation, excessive scrutiny, or unnecessary control.

Strong stimuli and emotional quotient—which relates to one’s ability to empathize and is considered the emotional equivalent of IQ—in early childhood play an important role for imagination and creative reproduction of impression. This process consists of combinatoric behaviors oriented toward discovery. Children can transform existing patterns into novelty when they are curious and able to make connections. Repetition of previous impressions defers from children’s ability to generate and combine original ideas; while the latter of these refers to reproduction, the former underlines creativity. Perception is based on feelings and it is rooted is rooted in internal linkages between surroundings, emotions, and attitudes. The chosen thoughts are ingrained in emotional framework and passion toward the subject matter. Thus, the individual may endorse both positive and negative reactions towards the same condition based on the mood and feelings.

Every vogue thought in a child’s mind—including fear, exaggeration, empathy, or lack of adaptability—may regrow into creative combinations when reworked through imagination and emotional context. Affection, curiosity, and self- expression cultivate motivation. Moreover, openness to new experience and the ability to handle ambiguity are important for motivation. A tendency to take risks in an environment conducive to exploration is an ideal motivation. While a persistent child may seem more motivated, persistence without the aforementioned tendency to take risks does not necessarily lead to creativity and discovery.

In early childhood, experience can be rooted in imagination as much as imagination is rooted in the experience. Creative recombination of associations between imagery and experience result in creativity. A child’s play, which incorporates previously experienced actions, cannot be minimized to reproduction alone. It involves elaboration and combinatoric relations that create a new framework. Imagination is more than mental enjoyment. It is rooted in reality and experience, and it is constructed of accumulated and combined memories. Therefore, a broader experience offers a better platform for imagery. Children are attracted to novelty. Their self-expression is free of biases and judgement. Their unique perspectives and responsiveness give rise to their range of creative expression. A role-modeling and frequently changing environment cultivates motivation in children.

Children grow as they actively explore reality and make choices. Creative combinations are fully manifested in children who have an opportunity to discover and experiment at their own rate and individual capability. A child’s imitation or pretension adapts to her unbiased interpretation of reality based on experience and imagination. Experience accrued in childhood promotes multilayered imagery. Imagination becomes more complex as it bridges distant elements of reality and fantasy:


Distant Reality 1 + Distant reality 2 = Fantasy 1:  House + Bird = Flying House.

Distant Reality 2 + Fantasy 1= Fantasy 2: Bird + Flying House= House-Bird.

Fantasy 2 + Fantasy 3 = Fantasy 4: House-Bird + Wizard = Wizard who lives in a house-bird.

Imagination in early childhood is not an escape from reality but instead involves prediction of the future occurrences and alternative realities. Since creativity is a skill and can be developed, imagination can be enhanced as well. Imagination is hardly limited to artistic expressions; it pertains to psychological, social, and emotional conditions and to decision-making. Imaginative children solve problems better because they more easily deal with change. Unstructured play in a diverse environment, encouragement to experiment, and celebration of expressions increase motivation in children. Promoting children’s autonomy by approving their choices and disagreements promotes their ability to be mentally flexible. Engaging children to examine surroundings improves problem-solving. Allocating enough time for children’s fantasies and free play, within the bounds of certain rules, promotes motivation. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation benefit from enthusiasm and encouragement.

Each child can develop creativity skills through experimenting without the fear of failure. Humor and fathoming unusual solutions are the prevailing tools for motivation. By granting children freedom to create and independence, with reasonable limits, to explore, educators allow children to generate multiple questions and solutions. Encouraging children to express their opinions, make choices, and express feelings endorses motivation. Providing learning opportunities for children, exploring together with them, and displaying an interest toward their interests also help a child experience true inspiration. Celebrating every small achievement while expressing love and appreciation endorses children’s inspiration.  Furthermore, caretakers and educators assist in building children’s motivation and self-esteem by being good role models and helping children grasp their own abilities.

Relative subjects that are part of a child’s life help him connect emotionally to a topic and then reflect upon it. Vivid images are eye-catching and memorable. Integrative, value-based, and challenging examples and combinations among them can help children understand interrelation between different subject matters and promote holistic learning. The process of interrelations among imaginative learning, themes, images, various combinations, emotional involvement, and creative training is demonstrated in Figure 5. Prevalence of colorful images, examples, and vignettes along with humorous sketches may turn the entire learning process into one of thoughtful invention based on personal needs and desires. Children learn better when they use their imagination. Imaginative play involves the entire body and all spectrum of feelings.

Combinations among images and thoughts promote creative thinking and learning. Imaginative learning also enriches a child’s aptitude for cognitive flexibility. Imaginatively play with small figures or pretend play rooted in contexts ranging from a restaurant, orchestra, or foreign country to a space ship provide children with possibilities for solving various problems. Theme-appropriate supplies—including costumes, props, music, and videos—can be utilized to intensify the social, emotional, language-based or thinking abilities and improve the learning effect. Dramatic play nurtures fantasy and fosters symbolic representation, associations, reasoning, and divergent thinking.

Figure 5: Imaginative Learning

Self-determination, as another important aspect of motivation, combines such abilities and attitudes as confidence, creativity, and self-awareness. Self-advocacy and a capacity for solving problems are additionally incorporated in the concept and are needed for establishing and accomplishing individual goals. Happiness and satisfaction arise from a sense of self-determination, which is invigorated, in turn, by comprehensive involvement, inner balance, intrinsic motivation, and persistence. Self-determined individuals frequently seek out obstacles, confront issues head-on, question opportunities they encounter, and remove themselves from their comfort zone. Those who are self-determined are most apt to be original.

Independence is the foundation of creativity. The liberty to create should not be framed as contradictory to moral law or any normative character thereof; this underscores the importance of teaching children to make ethical decisions from an early point in life. As consequences are analyzed, children can be taught to solve problems in a way simultaneously creative and ethical. It is through rooting education in a culture of self-determination that one generation can instill creative thinking in the next. Even simple activities and role-play can aid children in mastering self-determination as they make goals and plans pertaining to career, education, health, and personal life.

Cultivating motivation through imagination and self-determination in children may assist in the development of important complex social and higher-order intellectual abilities. They learn to make sound decisions when provided opportunities to make choices and think about the consequences in the learning environment. It is important to teach a child to not only make decisions but also reflect upon them. This includes analyzing the outcomes and potential side effects. It is also important to teach children the art of creating clear goals and respective plans for achieving them. Teaching children to express feelings through appropriate behaviors and maintaining emotional intelligence is a feasible tool for motivation. Working with a child on effective reactions when conflicts occur is imperative, as it promotes emotional intelligence and keeps children safe during nonfactual situations. Self-esteem is very important for a child and it promotes self-determination. To increase a child’s self-esteem, it is essential to discuss a child’s strengths and special talents.

You can furthermore motivate children by use of scaffolding techniques that teach them to advocate for themselves and defend their point of view. Imagination-driven learning should not result in deceptive or impractical reasoning but should instead encourage children to look at a problem from various perspectives. The role of the educator is to teach children how to use logic to evaluate the ideas. Imagination establishes motivation.

The chief role of imagination is motivating children to exceed boundaries and think freely about a given subject matter in relation to surroundings. While imagination motivates a child’s learning based on excitement, unusual images, on unexpected results, self-determination motivates on the bases of personal needs, interests, and goals. Child care providers and teachers—in the settings of family child care, day care, and elementary school—can promote imagination and self-determination through experience and self-expression.

I have trained licensed educators and child care providers in NYC since 2000. During my training sessions, I underline that learners’ motivation is a key to success. I encourage my participants to build learning based on practical and emotional involvement as well as the individual needs of young learners. I emphasize the importance of learning themes and connections among them from a holistic perspective of the world and personal involvement of children. The personal interests and levels of comprehension, along with individual learning styles and priorities, should be considered by every educator.

It is essential to learning that observation and practice be presented as major resources. Educators should teach children to make connections, solve problems, and develop self-image. Only through personal goals and needs, deep engagement and motivation, self-expression and creative thinking can learning truly become fun. Collaborative coaching for promotion of independent thinking and conducive to creative problem-solving environment are the powerful tools for motivation. When learning stems from emotional involvement and imagination, they become responsive. It is essential for educators to provide all possible opportunities to increase children’s self-esteem and self-determination. Children who feel free to express themselves are much more easily motivated.

In the example above, the children who participated in my research were in elementary school—in first, second, and third grades. The learning process entailed a creative step-by-step understanding of the world based on facts and imagination. It is very important to use imagination or fantasies only as a tool to learn the facts and understand the reality. For example, we created a scientific laboratory for children, supervised by the imaginary character Dr. Credo (Creativity Doctor) who initiated all scientific projects and events to help the young learners explore while having fun.

Creative learning is highly structured. The proposed curriculum was logically organized in the thematic learning blocks – themes. Every theme was explored from various perspectives or subject matters. Thus, the concept of addition as the action or process of adding something to something else was first explored from the perspective of mathematics—bringing two numbers together. Addition was next explored from the point of language, or adding words to existing structures. This theme was also investigated from a scientific perspective when children added baking soda to vinegar and observed the acid-base reaction outcomes. Addition was furthermore explored in arts and crafts, where children added elements to their composition. This approach promoted not only conceptual understanding of addition but an interest and enjoyment of each task itself.

Learning based on imagination and self-determination aims to maximize intrinsic motivation in children instead of applying external pressure or promoting desire for rewards. Playful exploration and desire-driven discoveries are the major elements of this process. These types of learning outcomes are self-sustaining and longer-lasting. Other important elements of learning include attention to children’s individual needs, pleasant environment, social interactions, and adventurous tasks.

Nurturing children’s motivation through imagination and self-determination via exposing them to new ideas and novel areas of expertise, as well as praising children’s self-expression, strongly encourages their intelligence, emotional health, and preparedness for the future. The role of educators is to help children to make connections between their own natural interests and learning themes. Children may lack motivation because they simply don’t understand the link between school work and their needs and desires. When a teacher turns the process of learning into creative game that promotes positive attitude, nurturing motivation, engagement, and resilience, the process of leaning becomes desirable and enthusiastic. When children feel loved, cared for, and comfortable, it enables them to enhance commitment, autonomy, mastery, and ownership of the learning process based on imagination and personal goals.


Zbarskaya, O. (1995). The Formation of a Culture of Self-Determination for Young Learners through the Humanization of the Pedagogical Process: Methodological Recommendations. [Formirovanie zhiznennogo samoopredeleniya mladshih shkolnikov sredstvami gumanitarizatsii pedagogicheskogo processa. Metodicheskie recomendatsii], Our School [Nasha Shkola], Odessa, Ukraine.