Thursday, May 1, 2008

An Inspiring Home for Learning, #6

#6-- Time and freedom for creativity brings delight and richness to our days and develops a lovely education.

Right from the start I knew this would be a long, long post. Never fear. This should not happen again-- it will probably be the longest post that ever appears on my blog. (And if you only knew how very much I'm leaving out!) I hope you can work through this and find something that is helpful or encouraging.

"The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things." (Plato)
I have no desire to wade into the shark-infested waters of trying to define creativity-- what it is, who has it, and what it's for (there are a lot of ideas and disagreements about this out there) except to say that I believe we are all creative because God, the Creator, made us in His image. And when we behave according to our created image and purpose, we find much joy and can bless those within our reach. God has also made each of us unique, so our creativity will find its own unique expression. This doesn't mean that we need to sit down with materials to try to create something and find ourselves. It just means that as we go about our daily lives, remaining true to our created purpose, creativity will emerge. And it can manifest itself in any form, from the way I make my own breakfast, or in the way I place a few wildflowers in a canning jar to sit in the kitchen windowsill, or in the way I write personal letters, to history's greatest works of art, music, or literature. Every aspect of our lives can and should be creative, and we should certainly have our own creative ways of thinking.

This little essay is written under those assumptions, and it all starts in childhood...

Creativity springs from the imagination. Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." And imagination, as it works with curiosity, will begin to manifest itself in creativity.

Arnold Edinborough said, "Curiosity is the very basis of education, and if you tell me curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly." And curiosity, imagination, and creativity are just the things that seem to be squelched by modern schooling.

According to Raymond and Dorothy Moore, western society has, by rushing children and forcing them through standardized curricula, virtually destroyed their creative potential. Some subjective estimates of "creativity" rate average individuals from ages twenty-five to sixty-five at 2 percent. They concede that a fifteen-year-old may have 12 percent and a twelve-year-old, 15 percent. But the creativity of the child at age five is appraised at 90 percent.

Charles F. Kettering, the inventor of the electric ignition, said, "A study made a number of years ago said the more education a man has, the less likely he is to be an inventor. Now the reason for this is quite simple. From the time the boy, or girl, starts in school he is tested three or four times a year and, of course, it is a very disastrous thing if he fails. An inventor fails all the time, and it is a triumph if he succeeds once. Consequently, if education is an inhibition to invention, it is due entirely to the form by which we rate things and not because of any intellectual differential."

Agatha Christie, who was homeschooled, stated in her autobiography that because children have things so completely arranged for them at school, they seem forlornly unable to produce their own ideas.

Beatrix Potter said, "Thank goodness my education was neglected. I was never sent to school. .. The reason I am glad I did not go to school-- it would have rubbed off some of the originality (if I had not died of shyness or overexposure).

I have many, many quotes like this by famous creative people (authors, inventors, scientists, artists), who all seem to agree that school can have a negative affect on creativity and imagination. It encouraged me to make a point not to make my family's day overly schoolish, but even more, to make room for a child to think, explore, discover, and create. I learned that it was important not to help my children or guide them (unless they asked for it) when they were trying to do something I thought might not work. A child is naturally inclined to want to work problems out for himself, and the process of trying this and then trying that in order to find what works is important. I think this develops good qualities in a child-- imagination, creative thinking and problem solving, persistence, vision, discipline, focus, a sense of accomplishment, not being defeated by "failure," among others.

And speaking of "making room," there was an article about children and creativity in the Oregonian years ago called "Busy Children, Hectic Lives" that encouraged this:

"Peek into a child's world these days and you won't find much time for daydreaming, building forts, or riding bikes. Instead you're likely to see a flurry of planned activities, from spring soccer and baseball to gymnastics and computer classes... These days, children from all walks of life are caught in a similar whirlwind. Experts say these nonstop activities threaten to erode the calm, creative free time in children's lives-- time that some think is critical to develop creativity and problem-solving skills..."

"Unstructured play helps build a child's imagination and creativity," said Russ (an expert on children's play in the psychology department of Case Western Reserve University) said. "Through play, children learn to make their own rules, resolve conflicts and become independent thinkers. They also learn how to handle boredom." Some parents responded that a busy schedule full of activities and little free time forces their children to become organized and to make good use of their time. Russ countered that developing creativity differs from gaining high grade-point-averages or impressive SAT scores. It requires time to play and daydream."

Anna Quindlen agrees: "How boring it was. Of course, it was the making of me as a human being and a writer. Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying in the grass, or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don't believe that you can write poetry or compose music or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity."

Children should have plenty of time and freedom to play and explore and to come up with their own questions, which can lead them to a depth of learning that can make our assignments look silly and anemic in comparison. When I noticed that my kids were developing a curiosity about something, it was usually counterproductive for me to interfere in order to "direct" or "help" them. The life of the thing was in the child, and I didn't know where their curiosity would lead them. I served them best by being interested in what they were doing, asking them questions (at appropriate times, and in an appropriate manner), and possibly by providing needed supplies (when asked).

I also learned to avoid criticizing a child's creation. He will make his own judgments. Commenting at the wrong time can kill enthusiasm. I think what Einstein said of the intellect and of curiosity (it is mainly in need of solitude) is also true of creativity (and are not all true intellectual pursuits creative?). Praise, yes, but your children will not appreciate praise for something they are not satisfied with. They know what they are trying to do, and they know if they are succeeding. And, if your children are anything like mine, never, never say, "That's really great for someone your age!" :-)

Kids don't need to reinvent the wheel or make every discovery afresh for themselves, but there's something positive in letting them discover, rather than leading them carefully and precisely from thought to thought. This freedom for a child to follow his interest in his own unique way leads him, step by step, to a deep conceptual understanding of a thing, and, I believe, this is the same process that enables inventors and scientists to discover or produce what has never been imagined before.

The imagination and creativity that was the impetus behind great scientific discoveries and great works of art, music, and literature, is the same imagination and creativity that lives in the young child who is making a mound with rocks, sticks, and dirt! The creative process simply develops and matures over the years, but all along it is in need of one thing-- freedom. In children, creativity is free and playful and seemingly random, though there is, for sure, a profound sort of discipline and perseverance involved. Creative discipline can look different in an adult, especially when they are paid to be creative every day. Twyla Tharp writes, in her terrific book, The Creative Habit, about this kind of creativity and about the individual techniques one must find to conjure it daily.

But I'm talking about children here and how their play, imagination, and curiosity all work together to form their unique way of being creative. A lot of times, parents, especially homeschooling parents who feel responsible for their child's education (and may need to guard against too-much invading their child's mind), will not clearly see the value of the carefree, exploratory play of a child. They will worry that a child needs to stop playing house with his stuffed animals, stop bouncing that ball all day, or stop lying in the grass, to do something more cerebral, more productive. But let me assure you that the child's free play is very, very important.

When Aaron was younger we gave him an electricity kit with wires, light, bulbs, and all that, along with about 30 instruction cards designed to lead a child step by step to a basic understanding of electricity. Aaron immediately tossed the cards. He'd seen and paid attention to electrical things, so it didn't take much playing around for him to figure out what to do with everything. He very quickly surpassed the scope of the kit and began adding some of his other toys or parts to the mix-- erector set pieces, technic lego parts, capsela, and even cardboard, wires, batteries, screws, tape, and other stuff we had around the house-- to make up his own inventions. He had learned the principles of how things work by reading books and taking everything in the house apart. It took me years to get over the temptation (with things like this) to press the kids to follow the instructions, but I've seen again and again that to learn best they need to follow the trail that's lighted by their own spark of interest.

And we don't know what their interest will be, so it's good to provide for a wide array of creative pursuits. This is what we tried to do in our home, and it was a place of busy, happy, creative productivity!

To illustrate this, I'll share something I wrote more than nine years ago, when the kids were sill young and living at home:

"...We have art supplies available all the time (good ones), art books, project books, tools, wood, classical music, etc. We let the kids cook and bake, using adult cookbooks and a collection of kids' cookbooks. We have lots of fun games. The kids have used the video camera to make movies, including stop-animation movies using legos as characters and sets. The kids are free to make messes. They make paper, stationery, birdhouses, bird feeders, doll clothes, little hot air balloons that really work, and whatever else they think of. Aaron made a miniature working motorized monorail system in his bedroom to transport his legos and other things from the windowsill by his bed to his closet shelf. When we moved to our house (now 12 1/2 years ago!), the kids began using the emptied cardboard boxes to make things. They made mailboxes for their desks and created their own postal system. They made drawer organizers. They made cars for their stuffed animals complete with working tires, headlights, trunks, doors and steering wheels. They made two-story houses for their stuffed animals, complete with rooms, appliances, dormer windows, shingles on the roof, chimneys, and even lights in some of the rooms. They made mini-mailboxes and mini-stationery for these houses, too.

"None of this was my idea; it's just what the kids came up with when they were given the time, freedom, and resources to do it. All of this might seem insignificant educationally, but I have learned to value this type of learning, creativity, and problem solving much more than what the kids might have covered with assignments or a workbook. A friend from the coast saw these cardboard creations. She sent me a letter a few days after her visit saying, 'You inadvertently recharged my homeschool batteries, again showing me there are many ways to learn. It was seeing '101 Uses for Cardboard Boxes' that did it this time!'"

Your child's interests may not be remotely related to the interests my children had. The key is to be attuned to our own children and to provide the materials and opportunities they need to be creative.