One of the greatest blessings of having a childhood filled with hours of unstructured play in the natural world and few time constraints, was that creativity became anchored deeply in my neural pathways very early in life.
Whether it was building cubbies, creating imaginary tiny worlds with things like leaves, sticks and nuts, or simply lying flat on my back watching the clouds, I had hours and hours to let my mind ponder, wonder and create both real and imaginary possibilities.
During my teen years I struggled with deep dark moods and chronic low self-esteem and there were years when I had very little creativity. It was all study, fixed schedules, long boring lectures at university, playing organised competitive sport and following endless rules made by grown-ups. My creative freedom had been stolen!
My friend, creativity, returned to my life when I stepped into the high school classroom as a teacher of English. I had to be really creative to engage students who had low literacy or who had simply developed a serious distaste towards writing and reading.
In those days, we could make creative flexible curriculums that engaged the students we had in each of our classrooms. I loved it and would often wake up in the middle of the night with another creative idea, or spend hours on my holidays creatively imagining more activities that I could do with my teen students!
Sadly we seem to be stealing creativity from our children’s lives far too early. Some of these sad realities in some early years’ settings see children being told how to draw the pictures and what colours to use!
We see young children becoming disillusioned by the need to compare and assess and mark creative pieces of work.
I salute the champions who work with children who strive hard to keep the light alive in their eyes – people like Teacher Tom in Seattle, Gillian McAuliffe in Western Australia and Michelle Scheu from Queensland, just to name a few champions. These folks are wise educators who know that we must stop orchestrating our young children’s learning by having an outcome already planned. Thanks to all the other childhood champions who do the same – you know who you are!
So why is creativity so important?
Well, apparently researchers have found that only creativity – rather than intelligence or an overall openness to life – can decrease your mortality risk.
One possible reason creativity is good for you is because it makes you use different neural networks within your brain.
James Clear quotes studies and research that demonstrate how creating art decreases negative emotions, reduces stress and anxiety, and improves medical outcomes. Not only can being creative help you live longer, but it can improve your quality of health and life too.
Creativity is suffering in our consumer driven, digital world – the power of the instant and FOMO, and endless hours of children doing exactly the same things with the screen on their lap.
The excessive test-driven world of education where we put a higher priority on our children’s capacity for memorising facts rather than being creative problem solvers is also stealing creativity from our children.
In school systems around the world the opportunities for the arts are decreasing, which has almost forced the arts to be an extracurricular pursuit.
The wise Thomas Moore once wrote:
“Art broadly speaking is that which invites us into contemplation – a rare commodity in modern life. In that moment of contemplation art intensifies the presence of the world. We see it more vividly or more deeply. The emptiness that many people complain dominates their lives comes in part from a failure to let the world in, to perceive it and engage it fully.”
— Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul (1992).
Making space for creativity
Creativity can emerge when we allow the world in as we contemplate life, ourselves and what makes us unique and different from others.
In this busy world there is less time than ever before to honour creativity in our lives, and this leads to fragmentation and separateness. This is so for children too.
We need to strive, even fight, for creativity to hold a place of value and importance in the lives of modern children.
Maybe in this way we can heal some of our disconnected and confused children and teens? We can provide the way home into our hearts away from our heads so that we can become more compassionate towards ourselves and others – and create the opportunity for personal freedom for those who are lost in the chaos? We can but hope.
The search for authenticity and wholeness is universal. Rachael Kessler was a wise woman from Boulder, Colorado, who explored the various ways we humans can be connected. As she outlined in her excellent book, The Soul of Education (2000), there are seven gateways to education of the whole child.
They are the:
- yearning for deep connection;
- longing for silence and solitude;
- search for meaning and purpose;
- hunger for joy and delight;
- creative drive;
- urge for transcendence; and
- need for initiation.
These seven gateways provide some clues to exploring the world of a troubled child or teenager – what is missing in their life?
Interestingly, the pursuit of creativity often opens all the other gateways simply by opening an individual’s creative expression. Why is this so?
Without being too intellectual or philosophical, I believe creativity takes a person out of their head-mind into the heart-mind; from a place of logic and rational thought into the garden of possibilities and freedom.
It allows for the free expression of a person’s uniqueness, originality and authenticity.
From birth, children have an innate creative drive to explore and interpret the world. Dr Margot Sunderland calls this the “seeking mechanism” that needs to be celebrated rather than crushed.
This innate drive is being disturbed by the presence of many commercialised toys, devices, TV and other screens, and overprotective parenting that does not allow babies to crawl around on the floor following their own instincts. Yes, babies and young children do put a lot of unhealthy things in their mouths and they do sometimes tumble down stairs and get their fingers caught in drawers and doors – all rich, very real learning experiences that allow their brains to develop their imagination and to be creative.
This is how children used to grow and explore – with the courage to be able to express themselves authentically through their play, sport, love of music and the arts.
Healthy creativity in children and adults has four main elements
- An active imagination. As has already been explored, many of the modern passive activities that use screens too early and excessively can numb children’s imaginations and stunt their capacity to explore their imaginary world in a positive way.
- The second requirement for creativity is the courage to express oneself as honestly as possible. Courage is needed because you may be judged. Even pre-schoolers are sensitive to judgement and criticism, and will curtail their creativity if they feel they risk being judged unfavourably.
- The third requirement is freedom, when we are allowed and also encouraged to express ourselves however we like in whatever form suits us.
- The final requirement is very simple – opportunity – in the home, at school and even in the workplace.
When all four of these attributes are present, children can experience the healing potential of creativity. They can diffuse excess energy, unexpressed emotions and experience safe transcendence by connecting deeply with their inner selves. Problems can be externalised, a sense of powerlessness and their fear about how the world appears to them can be expressed.
This frees them to be open to joy and delight – and that’s when we see those shiny eyes that we so love in children.
Drawing our feelings
When I was working with children and teenagers, I often began by asking them to draw for me. Many children reached for the black coloured crayon, or maybe the grey or brown ones. They drew pictures with no colour in them and drew themselves as very small or tiny figures.
When we had finished our time together and I’d introduced them to colour, they often asked to draw another picture, because they wanted to draw in colour.
It was this picture they took away with them, often screwing their first picture up as it ‘wasn’t them’ anymore.
I was also able to use the first drawing as a way of distancing a young person’s problem, from inside them to outside them. It is easier to talk about the sad girl in the picture and what may be making her sad, rather than asking the girl sitting in front of you.
That externalising of the problem was beneficial when helping them explore solutions to the conflicts in their life. A similar approach could be taken with sad toys, which need to get help to make them feel better.
Dr Stuart Shanker in his work on self-regulation believes that creative activities like music, dance, art, and time in nature help to build the capacity in our children to be able to manage stress better and to self-regulate both their emotional world and their physical energy.
How many opportunities are we offering our children to be creative, original and as expressive as they wish?
- Are you comfortable with dirt, mud, paint, water and glue?
- Do you have an area around your home where your child can get down-and-dirty with their creativity?
- Do you have a strategy that helps your child keep their creative ‘mess’ outside, like a cleaning bucket or bowl and towel?
- Do you join in with your child when invited?
- Do you keep the ‘creation’ as your child leaves it or do you quickly clean it away, as soon as possible?
- When did your child last make a cubby – inside or outside the house?
- Have you brought home any big boxes lately for your child to play with?
- When did you last watch ants or butterflies with your child?
- How many sand castles and sculptures have you made?
- How many mud pies have you ‘cooked’?
- How many dozen pipe cleaners or popsicle sticks have you bought?
- How many sidewalk chalk packs have you been through?
- What does your fridge look like?
- Have you hand-painted kids’ T-shirts with them?
- How many framed ‘kids’ bits’ do you have?
- How many homemade kites have you made and flown?
- When did you last have races with leaf or bark boats?
- When did you last make fresh play dough?
- When did you last have fresh sand in the sandpit?
- How often do you dance with your child?
- When did you last have a treasure hunt in the garden or park?
- When did you last play hide and seek with your child?
- Have you kept kisses or wishes in a jar?
- Has your child grown anything from seed?
- When did you take your child to the library to pick out story and picture books they wanted?
- Do you have a box of dress-up clothes?
This list of questions is not intended to be a checklist to assess your parenting and create more guilt!
It is more a list of suggestions of ways to help young children with opportunities for creative expression.
Notice these suggestions seldom cost much money – it’s more about commitment of time and energy by you the parent or carer, someone they love to spend time with.
These opportunities have scope for free expression so that children can direct the experience as they wish. This not only allows creativity to flow without being inhibited – it also allows a child the chance to make choices and to direct his or her own life for a change.
Creativity is often messy and the mess can last for days
Technology can also offer creative opportunities. I have had many children tell me how incredibly creative Minecraft can be and there are lots of apps and websites that are very stimulating and creative. You can find a lot of ‘how to’ creative hacks online, such as learning how to draw a unicorn, really quickly.
It would be fabulous if the creative opportunities online were so exciting as to keep our children away from the activities that have the potential to cause harm. We know many children have become experts at multimedia as well as finding ways to learn music and then record it via technology as well.
My only suggestion is that the first five years of a child’s life are best served exploring the real world, using all of their senses, so that they can bring more to the table of creativity in the digital world later.
Getting creatively uncomfortable
My work with teenagers in high schools showed me how shut down their creativity was. I noticed how ‘safely’ the students wrote in creative writing activities, how restrained they were, not letting their imaginations run at all. In a way, much of our current education system forces students to write this way rather than risk being creative and getting a lower mark.
Over time and with the careful use of many of Edward De Bono’s thinking strategies, I used challenging writing activities with my students that stretched their imaginations. I noticed their creativity opened up.
What I realised later was that the students needed to feel safe with me before they could express themselves freely.
The results were stunning. Not only that, what I discovered from these students many years down the track was that they found they had grown in their understanding of themselves and of life with these creative writing activities.
There is less time to tease the dormant creativity of most of today’s teens back into life in our classrooms but I know there are many teachers out there who keep trying.
Creativity and humour must be cousins!
I have noticed that when people gather to paint or draw, write or do patchwork, there is always lots of laughter and delight.
In retreats I’ve run we have several creative activities and they always end up with lightness. I sense that when people gather together in a safe place with like-minded people and the intention of being creative, then the natural benevolence and good will of humans comes to the top.
This may also be why creative craft work is so important in aged care facilities, hospitals and institutions. This happens with both men and women. I recently visited a men’s shed and I was so heartened to hear the laughter amongst the industrial noises!
My creative pursuits today as an older woman include gardening, baking, sewing, occasional crafts, spontaneous dancing and writing. Yup I find writing – when I am free to write without boundaries and expectations – incredibly cup filling. So I guess as a parenting author that’s a good thing.
Let’s reclaim creativity in our homes and our schools – and we can all live to a healthy, happy old-age!