How to encourage creativity: Embrace chaos

I love TED talks.  They are varied, fascinating, and stimulating.  They make me think of things that it never occurred to me to think about. Here is one that I watched not too long ago. It has been viewed over 5 million times, and has been extremely well-received.

At first I was inspired: the idea that we can be ‘educated out of our creative capacities’ hit a chord with me, the girl who has spent the last 29 years being educated and is currently feeling rather water-cracker bland.

Then it hit me what he seemed to be implying and I felt slightly indignant.

“Every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects.  At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts.  Everywhere on Earth.  And in pretty much every system too, there’s a hierarchy within the arts.  Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than drama and dance.  There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics.”

Not that I don’t love to dance and draw, but what’s wrong with teaching mathematics everyday, I thought?

Dr. Robinson’s point seems to be that by taking drama and dance out of school curricula, we are killing any chance our children have of learning to be creative.  The implication is that math and science are fundamentally uncreative pursuits, pushed down our throats in order to increase our productivity in the industrial world.

“… our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability.  And there’s a reason.  The whole system was invented… to meet the needs of industrialism.  So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas.  Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top.  So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the ground that you would never get a job doing that…”

I’m sorry to say, I think he has it all wrong.

Creativity is not a trait reserved for the artists among us, nor is it only learned through dance and theater.   “All children are born artists,” Dr. Robinson says, “the problem is to remain artists as we grow up.” I know what he’s getting at, but he misses a key point.  In his mind artist and creative are interchangeable, but scientist and creative are not.  What the statement should have said is:  all children are born creative, the problem is to remain creative as we grow.

Let me present an alternative view of creativity.  Creativity is neither rooted in artistry nor unique to science.  Rather, creativity is a way of thinking, a versatile tool if you will, that, once honed, can enhance our enjoyment and our ability in any field.  More importantly, creativity, like any thinking tool, is not something you either have or don’t.  It is developed, nurtured, and encouraged (Dr. Robinson and I agree on this point).

How then, does one go about developing the skill of thinking creatively?  Well, this is a blog all about being outside right?  You know where this is going…

Being outside provides the ideal context in which to foster a child’s latent creative talents.  I’m not talking about the outside where you and your child go to the park and play on the slides and swings and throw a blanket down on the manicured lawn for deviled eggs and carrot sticks.  I’m talking about the real outdoor world, where nothing is mown, nor sprayed, nor hedged into straight lines.  A place where mosquitoes can leave welts the size of grapefruits, where a rainstorm can strand you on an isolated road for a few hours, where snakes eat mice as they squeal, and birds eat snakes while they’re still writhing.  A place where unexpected animals are more than likely to happen across your path, where the rocks sparkle in a way that playground gravel never will, and where the horizon at sunset isn’t a silhouette of roof tops.

I’m talking about a world built around unpredictability and chaos.

This woman is crazy, you’re thinking.  Yes, I am—would someone please tell the voices in my head to quiet down for a minute?  I’m trying to make a point here.

My point is this:  I encourage you and your kids to step away from control for a little bit.  I read through a bunch of articles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) about the behaviors common to creative people and learned that in general these individuals possess these traits:

  1. An ability to focus, almost obsessively, on one particular topic.
  2. An energetic and insatiable curiosity.
  3. An open and imaginative mind, which doesn’t take tradition too seriously.
  4. A knack for adaptability and resourcefulness.
  5. A willingness to take a chance, try something new, and be boldly adventurous.

Some websites add that creative people are often drawn to complexity, and comfortable with ambiguity.

Shall I spell it out?

  1. An ability to focus, almost obsessively, on one particular topic.  We’ve already discussed on this blog how to use the outside world to encourage young children to focus.
  2. An energetic and insatiable curiosity.  There is nothing like finding a vein of rose quartz, or stumbling across a baby bird’s nest, or seeing a banana slug for the first time, to reward curiosity and encourage expending a little extra energy (As in:  “What do you think we’ll see if we go just a little bit further?).
  3. An open and imaginative mind, which doesn’t take tradition too seriously.  The natural world (the really natural world) has no traditions—seasons maybe, but even these are different from year to year (anyone living in the southwest can tell you winter forgot to come calling this year).
  4. A knack for adaptability and resourcefulness.  Time spent truly outside reminds one that there is more than one right way (should I feel sad for the dead mouse, or happy for the no-longer starving coyote?), and that anything can happen, at any time.  A rain storm or unexpected pit of sand that leaves you stuck is a great way to practice resourcefulness.  (Desperation is the mother of all invention.)
  5. A willingness to take a chance, try something new, and be boldly adventurous.  And of course, if nothing else, the mere act of putting yourself at the mercy of Mother Nature is a bold and adventurous move.

I encourage every parent to take their child on a trip—be it a day trip or an overnighter where the goal is simply to follow your noses.  Go where your gut tells you to go.  Find some BLM land, a bit of forest service property, or a trail system in a state park.  No destination, no predetermined objective.  Just go.  BUT (now for the caveat):  Go prepared for whatever adventure might find you.  Bring the tools you’ll need to enjoy and survive the adventure (water, cameras, binoculars, food, shovels, an extra jacket, whatever).  If your child is old enough they can even help you plan for these contingencies.  Go with an open mind and a willingness to embrace and delight in the unexpected (no matter what it is).  Who knows, maybe the trip will cultivate your own creative spark!


19 Comments so far

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  1. I loved this for so many reasons, but I can’t help but think that the very best scientists and mathematicians are the ones with a huge dose of creative energy. Also, this makes me want to have a good adventure soon.

    • Heather/pecwan–Exactly my point! Creative energy makes for good scientists, good artists, good cooks, good mechanics, etc. It isn’t something restricted to the theatrical among us, and it isn’t only learned by doing artsy things. Its learned by challenging yourself and what better way then by having a good adventure?
      And I look forward to the pictures that follow your next good adventure. =)

  2. jdp

    Its not just about hierarchy. Its about HOW the subjects are taught, its about “rote” vs. “right”. I SO love it when my son finds his own way to a right answer. Kids can be encouraged to be independent free-thinkers whether they get outside or not. And considering they have to sit in a seat, listen and regurgitate for a larger chunk of their day than they have to be outside I’d put the focus on that INside OR OUTside.

    • Armywife: You are of course exactly right–becoming a free-thinker is something that can happen regardless of being inside or outside. And the point is to teach how to think instead of what to think. But seeing as this is an outside blog, I thought I’d focus on that aspect, and what the unpredictable wild outside world has to offer in the way of challenges for a young mind!

  3. What a great post, Olivia! Thanks. Nature encourages creativity not just in its random, spontaneous ways, but also in its elegant patterns, rhythms and repetitions. Indeed, what a fertile ground for creativity!

    • Jeff: You are a poet. I love the patterns in nature too, and marvel often at the way math and art are perfectly married in nature. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I’ve been listening to talk radio all morning and this post blew it out of the water. I love how you described real nature…very well put!

    • Shawna, Glad you enjoyed it! Dr. Robinson is pretty entertaining to listen to–I can see how he would put talk radio to shame. =)

  5. Thanks, Olivia. It’s nice to be in touch w/you! If you’re interested, I just finished a post on Nature’s patterns which should air on One Man’s Wonder within the next week. Hope we can stay in touch…

    • Hey Jeff! I’ll be looking forward to your blog post! Lindsey and I were just commenting today on what a cool website you have… Full of great ideas and uplifting messages!

  6. Hiedi

    I agree with your explanation of creativity. My husband does not paint or dance or do drama, or any of those things people associate with creativity…but he creates! He is, by FAR, one of the most creative people I know (his sister is one of his few rivals in that). It’s the way he loves trying to discover solutions to problems (all kinds of problems) with hours of focused research and a lot of work. As a child I thought creative people were the ones like me, who did art projects and danced, but as an adult I’ve come to realize that many of the most creative people are in other fields. I really appreciate the creativity of scientists, chefs, engineers, architects, all kinds of techies, and people in a million other fields who enrich our lives with their creations.

    @ Jeff: I love your attention to the “elegant patterns, rhythms and repetitions” found in nature. Beautifully said.

    • Hiedi–Well-said!
      Your description of you and your husband reminds me of my parents: my mom was always drawing and painting… my dad dabbled in painting, but expressed his creativity in other ways. Much like your husband he LOVED finding creative solutions to everyday problems.
      Like you, I appreciate the various ways that creativity manifests itself in the things I enjoy everyday!

  7. Bonnie

    You are on spot, as are those who commented. Excellence in any field is often nothing more than an expression of creativity.

    From my own experience, having seen many “aha” twinkles in little eyes, I am convinced that random opportunities are more likely outdoors. We build enclosures and stay inside them to control the chaos of the world around us–a good thing for survival, but for new patterns, less so, Outside, it is the controls that are limited and the opportunity for new patterns limitless.

    I wonder if creativity can be nurtured through operant conditioning. You who are dog enthusiasts would recognize this a clicker training. Creative twinkles, including those resulting in less preferable outcomes, should get a click–even if it is nothing more than a recognition-twinkle in your own eye.

    • Bonnie: You make a good point (and say it so well)–random and unpredictable certainly happen to me more often outside (though the toaster oven didn’t work this morning–at 5:30 am–and that was unexpected!) I love your idea of recognizing and rewarding ingenuity when it happens. Here is a ‘click’ for your own creative thinking! =)

  8. Thanks for this. I have been doing a lot of research (seen most of Ken’s talks) since my son started Kindergarten last year. I was very disappointed in the system and I’m still looking for answers as to the best approach for his education. I have higher hopes for 1st grade but if they continue to be about testing, drilling and workbooks Im not sure what we’ll do. I also agree that being out in nature is amazing for kid’s brain development, curiosity and overall well being. We are so much happier as a family when we are out and about in the mountains.

    • Velomom,
      Ken is a very good speaker, isn’t he? I thought about buying one of his books. I really appreciate his understanding of the importance of the body and developing that other half of the mind. His only mistake (in my eyes) was thinking that creativity only resides in that half of the brain.
      I can only imagine the trepidation you must feel as a parent, trying to cultivate a well-rounded and creative child, when you have to hand him over to somebody else and their workbooks! I wish you the best of luck. On a more positive note, it sounds like your son is getting plenty of time for brain-development when not in school through his awesome parents and their love for being outside!

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    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

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