Embracing sandcastles: rekindling Imagination

Picture: Vishal Shah: Castles in the Sky

Imagination, the engine of my creativity

Ian Van Dahl’s millennium classic ‘Castles in the Sky’ conjures strong memories of my youth. Interpreting the lyrics as dreams of visionary projects or the impossible, few can deny the deep neural connections between music and imagination (Kaufman, 2000; Fries, 2009) or memory (Samson & Baird, 2013; Bergland, 2013).

For me, the track represents a time when imagination outweighed information and drove the engine of my creativity. In my 30s, alongside the explosion of the ‘Internet of Things’, I became subsumed by productivity, career goals and family responsibility. And left behind the space to stand still, be present, build castles in the sky. Living, yes, but also too caught on the wheel of life to reflect upon or understand what it means to live the kind of life I do.

And then I lost my Dad. The overwhelming grief shattered ingrained patterns of thinking.

Life is ephemeral
The loss of a relationship; a day-to-day existence profoundly changed. A more visceral knowledge of my own mortality permeated the days, catapulting me into a form of existentialist crisis. A year on, still heart-broken, but now liberated with a phenomenological acceptance of “being-towards-death” (Heidegger, 1962). A more purposeful contemplative outlook awakened. A rekindling of love for all things transient, more aligned to nature, music and the imagination activities lost from the temporality of childhood, which in turn reinvigorates my creativity.

Grief let the music in
Shelley Carson, author of ‘Your creative brain’ explains loss and creativity are two essential parts of the human experience. An ‘expressive creativity’ can channel negative energy into creative work as a means to assist with loss or trauma. It’s no coincidence I returned to writing in the depths of my mourning, a form of filling in the void. I also began to repay close attention to music. From over a decade of migrating to discussion on the radio, I sought music to help process my thoughts, and to recall the memories and emotionally heightened moments of the past.

The art of ‘being’
This summer I became mildly obsessed with transient play and learning spaces. In my household of minors, Lego rocks! To some, an expensive habit, particularly when the marketed constructions are short-lived, with pieces invariably mixed up and lost to the vacuum cleaner, but I would happily join forces with the ‘Lego Movie’ (2014) freedom fighters to rise up to stop the evil tyrant ‘Kragle’ from gluing the Lego universe into eternal stasis. The power of ‘Lego’ lies in its dualistic properties of impermanence and endless possibility, which feeds imagination, the precursor to creativity.

I’ve also borne witness to the contrasting development experiences of the procured beautifully designed children’s indoor tepee and the sustained joy and creative draw of the self-made constructions. A case in point that our modern material wealth can weaken imaginative spaces for our children.

I concur now too, with a number of social commentators that the obsession to document or capture life, courtesy of the high-res smartphones, has contributed to the stripping away of our ability to live in the moment. Research by cognitive psychologist Linda A. Henkel labels it the “photo-taking-impairment effect”. An overly zealous capture of our experiences on our phones can in fact detrimentally impact on our memories, as we trade “being in the moment”.

The hidden depths of sand sculpture

A bigger surprise for me is my new found respect for the art of sand sculpture, “which without lament, is always inevitably destroyed’ (Mullins, 2017). I’ve never really paid much attention to sandcastles. In fact I’ve employed the analogy of repeatedly rebuilding sandcastles to represent a less than fruitful day. Yet now, through a changed perspective, I see them as a clear expression of ‘living in the moment’ and ingenuity.

Kids and artists strive to create these amazing structures with the barest of essentials, whilst fully embracing that when the tide comes in, they are washed away without trace. The Florida Panhandle company has tuned in to this potential, and runs workshops to skill kids and adults to make 3½-foot tall structures. Yet they highlight the bonding experience they give to families, as well as lasting memories of creating masterpieces in the sand.

“Like a sandcastle, all is temporary. Build it, tend it, enjoy. And when the time comes let it go.” – Jack Kornfield (2011)

Seibert’s sand sculptures, (with kind permission of the artist)

USA artist and professional sculpture, Calvin Seibert’s takes sandcastles to imaginative heights. Improvised and almost always compromised by the elements, his are “big, fantastical, cubist-looking things, alternately blocky and curvy, striated and smooth” (Herbowy, 2018). Influenced by architecture, and filled with details and inspirations, they epitomise imagination, the joy of transience, and in my mind, ‘being-in-the-world’ (Heidegger, 1962). “It’s about the process. Building ‘sand castles’ is a bit of a test. Nature will always be against you and time is always running out” (Siebert, 2014).

Imagination supports critical thinking
Einstein once expressed ‘‘logic can take you from A to B, but imagination can take you everywhere.’ Many commentators on a modern education will agree, the education system has for a long time trampled on imagination in the pursuit of ‘assessment’. Plays, short stories, den-making, arts and creativity, too many to list, all ‘squeezed out of our schools’ over time. The danger of this is presented well by Gadamer (2004) – ‘the differentia between methodological sterility and genuine understanding is imagination, that is, the capacity to see what is questionable in the subject matter and to formulate questions that question the subject matter further.’ Even with use of tools such as ‘Socratic Questioning’ to support critical thinking, without the underlying imagination, you may simply be led from A to B! (Clark, 2008).

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” Einstein (1929).

Pedagogy and spaces to awaken the imagination
Not the prerogative of early childhood education, imagination and creativity need to be put at the centre of all learning experiences. Without these experiences, we miss opportunities to assist learners in developing the skills to cope with the personal, organisational and societal disruptions they face in a VUCA world. There is so much more we can do surely, that isn’t resource intensive, just as Calvin Seibert has demonstrated in the sands. We need to work with technology, but also prepare to ‘live’ and be ‘present’ in our lives without technology.

The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard highlights the essential human need for secret spaces for humans to withdraw to. For Bachelard , we should all lead a life that follows a rhythm between rational and social time on the one hand, and imaginative and solitary time on the other (Bachelard 2000 [1936], chapters 1-2). Our imagination should be allowed to also work freely in spaces in which we are free from the demands of ‘diurnal life’, including social interactions, production of knowledge and production of objects (Bachelard 1994 [1957]). The simplistic ‘art of den-making’, is a perfect escape solution from the world of technology for our children (Mooney, 2015).

“If creativity is the new currency, imagination is the foundation stone”. Damiano & Paloma (2015)

Dad’s wisdom
I wish I could update Dad over a cuppa on my change of thinking, he who would often scold me on my mild obsession with work. “You’re a long time dead” he said. “Enjoy while you can. Everything in moderation. Sláinte”. The true meaning of work-life balance, for decades figured out. “Work hard, play hard, laugh. Take joy in simple pleasures, in family, friends, pets, gardens, the moment ”.


Bachelard, G. (1994 [1957]) ‘The Poetics of Space’, Beacon Press: Boston.

Bachelard, G. (2000 [1936]) ‘The Dialectic of Duration, with an introduction’ by Cristina Chimisso. Clinamen: Manchester.

Baird, A. & Samson, S. (2013) ‘Music evoked autobiographical memory after severe acquired brain injury: preliminary findings from a case series’, Neuropsychology Rehabilitation, 24(1) pp.125-43.

Bergland, C. (2013) ‘Why Do the Songs from Your Past Evoke Such Vivid Memories?’, Psychology Today [online[. Available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-athletes-way/201312/why-do-the-songs-your-past-evoke-such-vivid-memories [Accessed 1st September 2019].

Carson, S. 2012 ‘Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life’, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Clark, J. (2008) ‘Philosophy, understanding and the consultation: a fusion of horizons’, The British journal of general practice: the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 58 (546) pp. 58-60.

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DeNora, T. (2002). Music in everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Einstein, A. (1929) ‘What Life Means to Einstein’

Fries, A. (2009) ‘How Music Feeds and Steers Your Imagination’, Psychology Today, 30th July [online]. Available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-daydreaming/200907/how-music-feeds-and-steers-your-imagination [Accessed 1st September 2019].

Gadamer H-G. (2004) ‘Truth and method’, 2nd revised edn, Continuum International Publishing Group: London.

Heidegger, M. (1962) ‘Being and Time‘, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Harper & Row: New York.

Henkel, L. A. (2014) ‘Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour’, Psychological Science, 25(2), pp. 396–402.

Herbowy, G. (2018)’The Sandcastle Sculptures Of SVA Alumnus Calvin Seibert’ [online]. Available: http://www.sva.edu/features/the-sandcastle-sculptures-of-sva-alumnus-calvin-seibert [Accessed 2nd September 2019].

Kaufman, S.B. (2000) ‘Investigations’, Oxford University Press: New York, NY.

Kaufman, S.B. & Gregoire, C. (2016) ‘Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind’, Penguin Random House: New York.

Kornfield, J.(2011) ‘A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times’ Sounds True Inc.: Canada.

Mooney, B. (2015) ‘Let’s make Dens’, Daily Mail [online]. Available: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3146527/Let-s-make-DEN-s-magical-children-grown-ups.html [Accessed 2nd September 2019].

Seibert, C. (2014) Interviewed by for “Liz Sintson’ in 7 modernist sand castles, from a master’s hand, Wired, 5th June 2014 [online]. Available: https://www.wired.com/2014/05/7-modernist-sand-castles-from-a-masters-hand/ [Accessed 2nd September 2019].

Photo;:  Kevin Jarrett on Unsplash

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