What does your imagination look like?


This is the first activity that my five-year-old daughter and I did together this summer holiday. 

I took my inspiration from this self-portrait project from the wonderful Artbarblog. But, of course, I added in some writing.  I love the picture that my daughter produced - and she was delighted with it too - but what was most interesting to me about the activity was what emerged from the process. 

I started off by asking her to close her eyes and think about her imagination. I asked her: What does it feel like? What does it look like? What does it taste like? If you could hold it in your hand, what would that be like - heavy or light, soft or with edges...?

I was fascinated by how easily she responded to this. The words flowed: floaty, fluffy, soft, like dreams...

I then encouraged her to start painting what this felt like, using a simple watercolour palette. I'd set up the activity on a tray.


(I'd made a simple black and white print-out of a photo earlier.)

I was amazed at how easily she was able to translate the images and sensations in her mind onto the paper. She spent a very happy half an hour with the paints, experimenting with different strengths to represent the feelings and ideas, gluing the paper doily 'flower' and finding out what happened when she added paint to the doily or used pens over the wet watercolour.

Throughout the process, she talked to me about what she was drawing and we had a really interesting conversation about the differences between our minds and our imaginations. It was also an ideal time to encourage her to reach for and practise new ways of describing things:

'So what kind of blue is that?' 
'Sort of turquoise.'
'Does it remind you of anything?'
'Yes. Under the sea. And this is the colour of sunshine. It's warm. And it tastes like cookie dough.'  

At a certain point, she decided that she wanted to stick her photo into the middle of the picture (she needed some help with cutting this out) and then she told me that she wanted to 'label' what she had drawn. Interestingly, I didn't have to suggest any writing, She did this very spontaneously. (My daughter loves writing at the moment. She can't get enough of it. However, if you're working with a child who is not as enthusiastic about making words, you could make notes of what they tell you as they're painting and then gently encourage them to incorporate some of the words. They may want to copy the spellings from your notes so it's a good idea to write them as clearly as you can.

I love the painting that emerged. I particularly love the 'me' label at the centre of it, which was made with such a flourish. But the most interesting development of all was that, as soon as she'd finished with the painting, she decided that she wanted to move on to a whole new phase of the activity and produce a book, which she was very insistent would be called My Mind Book. (As you can see, this eventually changed during the making process, into Book of Dreams.)


She chose to use another copy of the photo print on the cover and then coloured over it with glitter pens and embellished it with adhesive gems and stickers. 

I really love the writing that she made here and how it gave her the opportunity to practise forming sentences. 

What fascinates me most about this process is that it enacts two distinct phases from my research into creative writing processes. The painting is a lovely example of Letting Go with colours and textures, enjoying the words as feeling-objects in themselves; and then the book-making is a kind of crafting process, a perfect example of the phase that I call Making or Finding Form.

And all exemplified very naturally by a five-year old. So interesting.   



Sophie Nicholls

Sophie Nicholls is an author, poet and University Teaching Fellow at Teesside University where she teaches creative writing and leads on online, hybrid and digital learning and teaching projects.