I grew up on Kauai in Hawaii in the 1970’s, a hippie child with few possessions and no TV. I firmly believe that free time in nature along with a lot of reading, provided the right soil for a creative mind. As a kid I made my own board games, built tree forts, established elaborate invented worlds, and created entire naturalistic neighborhoods for my Barbies.
Those liberated Barbies were the original Real Housewives of Kaua`i, right down to haircuts I gave them and handsewn clothes. (Not to mention a few burnings at the stake for Barbie witchcraft and other mischief.)
I married an amazing creative man, and when we were raising our children in the Midwest, in a WASP-y area where kids’ days were scheduled from dawn to dusk with “enrichment” activities like music lessons, gymnastics, French and soccer, I put my foot down in the face of peer pressure from other moms. “Our kids won’t learn to think for themselves. They’ll never learn to problem solve and entertain themselves. They need to be BORED to do that,” I told my husband.
I was in the middle of my undergrad work in psychology, and nowhere did I read this—but I knew it to be true from my own experience. Creativity is a response to an absence of other stimulation and a way of problem solving. It grows best in an atmosphere of encouragement, provision of basic materials needed, and open stretches of unscheduled time when the expectation is, ENTERTAIN YOURSELF, or SOLVE THIS PROBLEM.
So as a family, we decided the kids would only have ONE other scheduled activity besides school at any given time. Their playground was the outdoors, provisions were art and building materials, non-electronic toys and the luxury of unscheduled time. They heard what my parents had said when I complained: “well, if you’re bored, you must have time for some chores.”
I said that and added a twist—“Boredom is the sign of a tiny mind.”
They learned all right, just as me and my sisters had—to make things up, and build things, and mastermind grand games with elaborate rules, and to be independent, critical thinkers. I feel passionately that by overscheduling kids, and overstimulating them with electronic media, creativity and critical thinking are being lost. Understimulating them with a lack of opportunities is also crippling and tends to be what educators focus on.
This wonderful article http://www.newsweek.com/2010/07/10/the-creativity-crisis.html talks about the lowering scores on creativity assessments in our standards-obsessed schools, and the neural tasks involved with creativity. They define creativity as “alternating between divergent and convergent thinking to arrive at original and useful ideas.”
The article discusses the elements necessary to encourage creativity in schools, and adds:
“Having studied the childhoods of highly creative people for decades, Claremont Graduate University’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of one of my favorite books ever, FLOW) and University of Northern Iowa’s Gary G. Gute found highly creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites. Parents encouraged uniqueness, yet provided stability. They were highly responsive to kids’ needs, yet challenged kids to develop skills.
This resulted in a sort of adaptability: in times of anxiousness, clear rules could reduce chaos—yet when kids were bored, they could seek change, too. “In the space between anxiety and boredom was where creativity flourished.”
Summer is a ripe opportunity for creativity. Nothing beats a wide open afternoon with nothing to do, and nothing to do it with besides a pile of sticks, a hammer and nails, and a box of old costume jewelry. Out of such things, worlds are made.