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Noticing the forget-me-not moments of everyday creativity

I keep noticing these forget-me-not moments of everyday creativity when engaging in play with my boys, the types of things that I never really thought about until I began writing this blog. They’re really simple… for example lets take Lucas’s favorite toy from his twos and three – Thomas the Tank Engine. Naturally we bought a wooden railway to support his first obsession. At first there was one obvious track formation – the figure of eight. I tried a few different variants but they were never as good, and would put strain on some of the pieces. Slowly overtime we added to the set by buying a bridge here, and a tunnel there, before we knew it we had the ability to create a variety of different track formations by just adding one or two pieces. Eventually it became a challenge for me to build a different track each evening. My wife would sometimes get mad when I would respond to her calls late, but I was fixated on trying to jiggle the last pieces in a way that would make my latest variation work. It even became a game between Lucas, and me, as he would begin playing at one end of the track, as I rushed to finish the other end before the engines arrived. I confess that I would even try and influence Lucas in the shop when we were looking for additional pieces. That extra bend or fork in the track would make all the difference to our, or shall I say ‘my’ future creation. Obviously, this would be a challenging task to pass on to a two year old, especially unaided, but it certainly got me thinking about what other things I could ‘tinker’ with just to be different, to engage my originality and take notice of the forget-me-not moments of everyday creativity when playing with my boys.

As Lucas’s games have evolved I’ve noticed that originality play a big part in their design. He never made the same track twice, and the characters that appear in his games regularly change. I doubt this has anything to do with my track obsession, but it certainly has me thinking about how we might develop a tolerance for ambiguity and better appreciate differentiation in play. Ultimately, why would Lucas build the same track twice, he’s certainly never experienced the ‘correct’ way for it to be assembled? Now the greatest challenge right now is for me to practice what I breach and bring this theory into our Legos, for I am finding it really hard to accept that Lighting McQueen has a place in our recently built Lego Village – anyone seen Lego Movie? Yeah that’s going to be me!

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We must make more of the ‘Micro Bursts’ of Creative Thinking

I first heard about the concept of ‘Micro Moments’ from Susan Keller-Mathers, at the International Center for Studies in Creativity, she was referring to the brief moments of creativity that occur during the day and may only last for a few seconds. I’m going to call them ‘Micro Bursts of Creativity’ as I think the word burst is better associated to the little ones, but they’re certainly moments. They’re usually associated with a creative response to a question, or responding to a presented problem in a new and surprising way. Usually we notice these actions and perhaps might respond with a ‘well done’ or ‘hey did you see that… my girl just did this’… but because they’re so brief we usually let them glide by and fail to celebrate the creative thinking within the action.

Here’s a perfect example, my little boy was helping me prepare the Christmas cards. It was kind of annoying as I wanted to get through them quickly, but he’s currently in this fix of wanting to join in with adult jobs and gets very frustrated if he’s not included, so I suggested he write his name in each card, which then turned into drawing pictures. I confess I didn’t look at any of the pictures as I was too busy writing each address on the envelopes, but I noticed him looking a little puzzled after we’d got through about 10 cards. ‘Lucas, what’s the problem’ I asked, ‘I’m thinking what to draw next, I’m trying to draw a different picture in every card’. Wow, this was a really cool creativity exercise that only a three year old would invent! Through his many years of studying creativity, E. Paul Torrance identified a creativity skillset, and one of the skills identified was the ability to produce and consider many alternatives, it’s often referred to as the Fluency Principal. This would have been an excellent fluency exercise, and has similarities to activities like ‘come up with as many alternative uses for a bathtub, or a brick, or a bucket, etc. The goal of this type of exercise is to focus on quantity over quality, to resist the temptation to find the one ‘right’ idea and instead generate a variety of ideas. This is one of four principals of brainstorming and has proven to be effective in the production of innovative ideas during ideation sessions.

What’s the point of this article you might be saying… well I believe the action above has now dwindled from Lucas’s mind. He probably doesn’t realize the recognition I gave it, and certainly didn’t associate it with anything special, but when he first spelt his name I reached for my phone and immediately pushed record. If I ask my family if they’ve heard Lucas spell his name they’re all going to say ‘Yes Matthew’… if I ask them if they heard about the story above they’re going to say ‘No… and might not be that interested’… so my point is we need to value these micro bursts of creativity as much as the micro moments of academic development. I mean seriously, most kids know how to spell their name by five or six (and who cares when they started). If we want to better nurture creative thinking we need to recognize the ‘coolness’ of generating twenty-five different pictures* in the space of 5/10 minutes? I’m not even sure I could do that!

*Full disclosure, I didn’t actually take note of the pictures Lucas was drawing so he actually might have failed miserably if this was one of E. Paul Torrance’s Tests of Creativity.

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Creativity and Fantasy

Einstein

“Dear Mr. Fantasy….

….play us a tune

Something to make us all happy

Do anything take us out of this gloom…”    -Traffic.

 


We’re all creatures of habit. And there’s some comfort there. As teachers and students and parents we often sink into the familiar rather than explore unchartered waters. And that’s really where all the fun is. Kids know that when they are young: watch them play and spin reality into fantasy and back to reality faster than we channel surf.

At times the rigidity and gloom of too many school curriculums can rob them of their creativity unless we as parents allow, encourage and participate with them in creative activities like the one my colleague Matthew Worwood described in his wonderful 11.22.14 post on “ten items that must be included in a dressing up box.” Sometimes I think fantasy gets too much bad press from the sociological/psychological gurus. Here’s another guru for you:

“The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” ― A. Einstein

There are no rules in unchartered waters. As parents and teachers we want to equip our kids with the navigational tools to explore these waters, but too often we are reluctant to go there ourselves. It has been reiterated many times that we are now educating students for jobs that don’t even exist yet. Unchartered waters.

It’s often the parents and teachers that need the encouraging to use their fantasies to explore and not the kids.

I used to teach 11th grade English at the high school. The whole curriculum was British Literature. Imagine teaching Macbeth (or Beowulf!) to a room of really reluctant readers at 7:30 in the morning the first week in September. Many of these kids had never read a book from cover to cover in their lives.

I shared a room with Sean Malloy – an amazing teacher but a misguided fanatic Red Sox follower. The students always enjoyed the playful banter between the two of us since I’m from NYC and a die-hard Yankee fan. As we drove to work in the morning passed trailer parks and local diners, we listened to sports radio and often talked of curriculum – and then tried, with mixed results, various instructional strategies to engage the students in Shakespeare.

The students loved our rat-a-tat-tat taunting of each other with regards to our opposing baseball teams. And one morning we slipped into unchartered territory and the whole game changed:

Both classes were reading Hamlet and one of us suddenly asked, “If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern played baseball – what position would they play?

Stop. The room went quiet. Everyone in the room looked at us. What are these teachers taking about? It made no sense. Where’s the logic? Baseball and Hamlet?

And the other shot back, “They’d have to play shortstop & 2nd base – they’re a perfect double play combination!”

And we were off to the races…..

The kids loved it. Instant engagement. We put the names of all the characters from Hamlet on the board and had the students discuss each one – and then had them assign characters in the play to baseball positions based on their personal attributes and their relationships in the play. Collaboratively teachers and students formulated a line-up that bears some resemblance to the following:

-Hamlet – contemplative, reflective, can be rash and impulsive – Center field

-Claudius – shrewd, conniving, tries to control the game – Pitcher

-Laertes = Claudius’ catcher, as he’s receptive to everything the “bastard” throws his way

-Gertrude – charm and grace – desires a good position – 1st base

-Rosencrantz & Guildenstern – Shortstop and 2nd base (double-play combo)

-Horatio – 3rd base – because Hamlet’s discussions with him are close to home.

-Ophelia – (DEEP) left field

-Bernardo or Marcellus – platoon in right field-based on righty/lefty pitching matchups

-Fortinbras – comes in from the bullpen to close it out.

-Polonius – Manager

-Old King Hamlet’s ghost – General Manager – as he gets the wheels in motion.

-Yorick’s skull would be displayed in Monument Park, and the Gravedigger would be the mascot.

The fluidity of the above exercise can stretch way beyond the classroom to spontaneous and creative moments that you can share with your kids. The other night our family was sitting around the dining room table laughing as our three pit bull rescue dogs, Flash, Stella and Arlo entertained themselves and us with an endless series of antics. We started talking about their very different characteristics – at which point my ten year-old daughter (having just finished yet another book in a adventure series about the Greek gods) – asked, “If Flash was a Greek god….which one would he be……”

Back to our baseball team – and for the fun of it –
the statistician:

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” ― A. Einstein

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Creativity ≠ Getting A’s on Every Assignment

Miles Davis is one of my favorite musicians. He once went to an LA Lakers game. Miles didn’t exactly see the game the way most fans do. He heard the game. He listened to the squeaking sounds and changing rhythms as sneakers stopped and started – and got louder (coming toward him) and softer (farther away) – and then the silence…….when the ball was in the air. That’s how Miles saw the world around him. He heard it everywhere.

Thinking creatively does not always sync with the grades your kids get in school. We all want our kids to do well and succeed. But according to whose standards? Nurturing the natural curiosity and imagination all kids are born with is one of the most important & challenging aspects of parenthood. And one of the enduring adventures you can share as a family.

My ten-year-old daughter is now in 5th grade and I’m hearing specific words and phrases from her with increasing regularity: “tests, grades, how many did I get wrong, what if I fail?” What is a parent to do?

The pre-occupation with “right v. wrong” is a huge philosophical shift from the Multi-Age Group (MAG) program that runs from 1st – 4th grade in her school. In MAG, imagination & curiosity set the tone as teachers guide students to create projects that incorporate (but are not ruled by!) the curriculum. The students in MAG learn the curriculum as well as students in the mainstream program – and maybe even better as a large proportion of them are subsequently invited into the Talented and Gifted Program.

By tapping into students’ specific passions and interests, the MAG teachers enable their students’ curiosity to take flight and then shape the creation of projects. They require students to demonstrate mastery of specific course material. But they do so much more. They instill in students a love of learningand a foundation of utilizing their natural creativity to solve problems:

In a 4th grade MAG science unit– a student designed and built a kayak out of duct tape and pvc piping. Would the kayak float or sink? No one knew until the class carried the kayak down to the school pool and launched it. With the student on board and the class cheering – the kayak glided across the length of the pool!

With my daughter now in the mainstream school & in a more structured & grade conscious environment, what can be done at home to nurture and keep alive her curiosity, imagination and creativity?

Be the best Safety Net you can: allow and encourage your kids to play and explore and walk the high wire with their ideas and experiences. They may see and hear and experience things you’ve never imagined – they are wired differently than we are – go beyond validating their explorations and expressions. Take part in them. Share in their adventure. Reverse roles. Let them be the guide – for a while. Some of their ideas may sound crazy & off the walls – but (as long as there is no danger involved) let them discover that – let them walk the high wire – and if they stumble and skin their knees – they have to know there’s a net to catch them – and that trial and error (and failing!) is not just okay – but necessary to all discovery and learning.

You may have all the answers but Let Your Kids Make Their Own Discoveries.

-Remember “Play is the highest form of research.” That’s Einstein’s idea and it sure rings true.

I’ve told my daughter I don’t care what grades she gets. I mean it. There is another value system beside A-B-C-D. It’s okay to fail – and learn from that and move on. I do care that she learns. I do care that if she doesn’t do well that she tries to figure out why and what she can do next time. If that’s asking too much of a ten year-old – I’m here to help.

Allow your kids time for their ideas to grow and develop – try and instill in your kids that ideas need time to percolate. Absolutely be cognizant of deadlines, but discuss this with them to avoid the craziness of getting it all done the night before something is due. Trying to solve it all the night before is usually not the best scenario.

-Talk to your kids about a timeline for their homework. In the film class I teach at the high school, we work in terms of pre-production (brainstorming and planning), production (doing the work), post-production (reflecting on the whole process – what worked? What didn’t? Why? What would you do differently next time?)

This summer my daughter and I walked together by the beach. She began to snap pictures on a camera. A lot of pictures. Seemed random to me as she snapped dozens and dozens of photos. The film teacher in me thought – she’s not planning her shots. And the “exercise” walk I was looking forward to never happened. But it was an amazing exercise for her. Later when we got home she uploaded the photos to the computer. She saw so many things on the walk that I didn’t notice. And in ways I couldn’t imagine. She took the photo above of the two of us. Can’t really tell it’s a father and his daughter. But it is her vision of us. And it has become one of my favorite photos of the two of us.

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