Grace Aretakis/Daily

When you are young, anything is possible. Princesses fly on magic carpets, fairies lurk in the depths of every forest and animals seem to always seem to be able to speak fluently. There is no greater liberation than being a child, mind open to the possibility of anything and everything. Pure, (literally) unadulterated imagination. Freedom. 

Any day my Hogwarts letter would come, or I’d find the fifth Golden Ticket, surely to be whisked away to the wonderland I always envisioned for myself. A vivid imagination, in awe of every tree and cloud and Polly Pocket doll in all their other-worldly wonders. 

I don’t know when I lost that imagination, but I mourn it every time I sit down to write. At some point, the creative person I considered myself to be changed, presumably from a child to an adult. The girl who once spent recess writing a short story about a koala ballerina from space now cannot produce a 100 word poem for class without restlessly searching her brain for something exciting. 

But how did this happen? Not just to me, but to many, both “creative” types and not? How do we lose our childlike magic, and where does it go? Does it fade into the sky, leaving us bare?

Losing our imagination begins with the psychological changes that underscore the shift from childhood to adulthood. In our younger days, the mind is effortlessly transformative. University Professor Frederick Amrine gives the mundane example of a saucepan, which children can interpret as virtually anything they desire.

“The young child is just so wonderful,” he explained. “Take a saucepan. Well, you know, the saucepan isn’t just a saucepan, it’s a boat, it’s a hat. It’s fungible; the young child weaves a sort of magical aura around this saucepan, and it can become almost anything.”

Gradually, Amrine explained, the child sees its caretaker use a saucepan over and over and over again in the exact same way. Place it on the stove, let the flame blaze and serve up your creation. Eventually, the child is gradually induced into ditching the saucepan’s metamorphic potential and simply seeing the object for its practical function. 

Through a combination of psychological processes, social learning and cultural expectations, we slowly grow accustomed to what exactly it means to be a child; we learn where the line of “growing up” is drawn.

Through the process of social learning, we are conditioned into the confinements of our decided age group. As we move out of childhood (roughly ages 0-12) and into adolescence (roughly ages 13-19), we learn what is deemed socially acceptable for our particular age range and are encouraged to act accordingly. And at one point or another, the majority of us are told to put down the Legos and crayons in search of more “mature” pursuits; rather, those that fit our perceived expectations for adulthood.

And growing into adolescence typically means developing an acutely controlling self-consciousness. We start to notice what makes us feel different from others, whether it be our bodies, hobbies or our perceived social statuses. Our insecurities take center stage, leaving our imaginations to wait in the lobby, sell snacks during intermission and commiserate. 

Rather than continue to create worlds of our own, we become preoccupied with the one in front of us: namely, the social spheres under which we operate. The “imaginary audience,” defined as the adolescent belief that others are constantly focusing on them, pushes us to conform to the world around us to prevent embarrassment or shame. 

Hence why, according to Psychology Professor Daniel Keating, abandoning the liberal individuality of childhood is often inherent to the nature of adolescent insecurity. 

“(Adolescence) is a psychosocial thing. It’s what you’re thinking about yourself, and what others think of you,” Keating said in an interview with the Daily. “The adolescent peer experience, with all of its dominance hierarchies and struggles with popularity, sharpens what one would imagine one’s ideal self to be and what the world is going to accept.”

It’s a tale as old as time: a wide-eyed child who loves to play make believe subconsciously transforms into a teen who would rather stay quiet in an unfamiliar circle of peers. 

Take Ohio State University freshman Talia Moses’s experience, for example: “[When I was little], I had notebooks on notebooks of plays and stories that I wrote. I was super into theater, which really allowed me to express myself,” she said. 

But coming into middle school, discomfort around her peers led her to abandon what had once been her primary creative outlet. 

“I think that as I got older, I thought I would get judged for being a theater kid or something like that,” Talia described. “And because of that I didn’t want to be associated with that or have people know what I was doing so I just let it go.” 

LSA sophomore Lilah Shandel shared a similar sentiment.

An avid reader and writer as a child, Lilah actively hid her imaginative side once she entered high school in an effort to better ‘fit’ into her social environment. 

“Honestly, when I was in middle school, my friends made fun of me a lot. Because I liked (books and that) kind of stuff. And in high school I saw a way to reinvent myself a little bit,” she said. “So I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I won’t be that girl who reads under her desk all the time when the teacher is teaching.’ I’m just gonna keep my head down and do what everyone else is doing. And maybe I’ll have friends that way.”

The adolescent experiences of Talia, Lilah and others like them are positioned in a society that sees imagination as something to grow out of. Beyond the more concrete neuroscience behind “growing up,” societal notions of what exactly being a child means impact our connection with the imaginations we were once closely in touch with. Through our experiences with others, we begin to internalize these expectations and allow our imaginations to fall to the backburner of our ever-busy minds. 


Working as a camp counselor for a group of 10-year-olds this past summer, I had the opportunity to watch “growing up” in action. For some, the age of 10 was just another year of experimental play and creativity. The “mature” 10-year-olds might have crushes on the older boys and test out every curse word. Among lifeguards, counselors and head staff, the latter campers were the center of attention in conversation, showered with praise for their “adultlike” personalities. The former went unnoticed.

My campers were not alone in being encouraged to participate in the activity of “growing up:” becoming familiar with the “real world” and its consequences and complexities. 

Wanting to be an astronaut is a cute ambition when you’re in elementary school. Yet suddenly, 10 years later, you are being encouraged to use your scientific skills to go through medical school instead. It’s practical; it makes logical sense for establishing a stable income and daily life. Or, that’s what we’re told. 


Like Lilah and Talia, I, too, ditched my notebooks filled with bizarre short stories to engage with the ups and downs of middle school social life. Almost a decade later, exiting late adolescence and moving into young adulthood, I find myself yearning for the simplicity of my childhood, cursing my insecure middle school self for minimizing the magic with which I once saw the world. But slowly, I have discovered that imagination is not gone forever. Instead, it is lost — waiting to be found again. 

And life’s only a matter of how we go about finding it. 

Lilah, having gotten back in touch with her love for fantasy in college, explains that a supportive environment has provided her with the space to do so. 

“I was so lucky last year to meet the people that I met,” she said. “And people who really pushed me to do what I wanted to do and not what other people like, or what I thought other people wanted me to do.”

As a naturally exploratory life stage, young adulthood (roughly ages 18-25), provides us with the opportunity to find the communities that best serve our most authentic selves. Additionally, it gives us the space to engage with the ideas that intrigue and excite us, especially those we may have thrown to the wayside during a more uniformed adolescence. To Amrine, regaining our imagination is an active process, one to be taken on with love and patience. 

“The world is imaginative and (a) young child sort of imbibes that. But then the adult actually has to develop imagination from the inside out,” Amrine explained. “So they have to actually expand once faculties again and make them more mobile.”

Relative independence from social expectations grants us freedom to appreciate the little things that bring pleasure to the inner cogs of our brain: Bookstore windows, puzzle pieces, blooming flowers, smiling faces — ordinary magic. 

Therefore, retaining our imagination is imperative. It is what fuels us to push forward and comforts us when we grow exhausted. It is the backbone of what makes the human race a worthwhile endeavor. 

Even in fields presumed to operate on strict right and wrong answers, inquiries of wonder often lead to the discoveries that completely alter our state of existence.

“I feel very strongly that hard science is actually an imaginative enterprise,” Amrine said. “The scientific method doesn’t have an imagined moment in it; rather, it begins its work after an imaginative act.”

Imagination allows us to make sense of the world’s greatest wonders. From major scientific breakthroughs to individual philosophical queries to a combination of the two, the vastly overwhelming universe we inhabit can be comprehended through the assistance of our own imaginations. 

LSA sophomore Gab Martinez said she grew up establishing her own version of the physical universe in an existential attempt to piece her world together. 

“I, from a very young age, was very existential,” she explained. “I would lay in my bed and I was 8 years old like saying ‘I am this tiny human in a giant universe. I am pointless.’ I was wondering about everything that’s out there to try to rationalize it in my own head, like aliens and other planets and all that sort of stuff.”


There is a part of me that still waits for the Polar Express or Delorean Time Machine to come whisk me away to a place far, far away. The world 4-year-old me was able to see with her own eyes, right here on Earth, as she crossed the busy streets with Mommy hand-in-hand on the way to preschool at the Forest Hills Jewish Center. 

But as I work to retain that imagination, I remember the universal truths of the stories we fixate on as children and beyond. I know, deep down, that imagination is more than extraterrestrial beings and wicked witches. It is about getting you where you need to go and reminding you of your persistent uniqueness even when you feel yourself fading. It is about treating ourselves as delicately and with as much fascination as we would our younger selves, because they remain infinitely part of us regardless of our age. 

I leave you with this anecdote from Lilah: 

“Until I was maybe 13, I thought JK Rowling would knock on my door and be like, ‘I’ve read some of the things you’ve written and it’s fantastic and I want you to write a book with me.’ Obviously, that’s never gonna happen now, but it still hasn’t stopped me from thinking it’s a possibility. It could happen for some people. Getting older makes you more grounded. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” she explained to me. “If you keep thinking that things like this are possible, anything could happen. Like I didn’t expect to get into Michigan, for example. But I worked my butt off to get here. I just didn’t expect it to happen. And it did. So it’s just different types of dreams and they’re more grounded in reality, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop trying.”

“Oh my god, that was perfect,” I told her.

Statement Correspondent Emily Blumberg can be reached at