Learning from Kids: 5 Ways to Reclaim Your Creativity

Self on 09.08.11
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One of my favorite ways to while away the time is to peruse Ted.com and look for captivating, brain-tickling offerings from presenters as varied as "Eat, Pray, Love's" Elizabeth Gilbert and her riveting talk on creativity and muses; Bobby McFerrin and his ability to get the audience's neural firings synched up through music; and child prodigy Adora Svitak, who pleads with the audience to not put childish things away.

After all, Svitak argues, childishness is the realm that produces some of the most mind-blowing creativity:

"In many ways our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility. For instance, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, my home state, has a program called Kids Design Glass, and kids draw their own ideas for glass art. Now the resident artists said they got some of their best ideas through the program because kids don't think about limitations ... when you think of glass you might think of colorful Chihuly designs or maybe Italian vases, but kids challenge glass artists to go beyond that into the realm of broken-hearted snakes and Bacon Boy, who you can see, has meat vision."

Meat vision? Of course the glass-blown Bacon Boy has meat vision! This reminded me that I'd like to flex my imaginative muscles more often, and that I could really learn a thing or two by paying more attention to how my daughter plays (Need a space ship? A laundry basket will do nicely). Not too long ago my podcast co-host, Robert, and I researched the science behind creativity.

Here are the little nuggets of wisdom that revealed themselves in our quest to uncover how we can better unleash our creativity -- little nuggets that little tykes have already mastered. Which reminds me of the famous Picasso quote: "When I was a child, I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to draw like a child."

1.       Improvise --and tell the observer in your head to get lost. You never see kids playing -- whether it's drawing, painting, storytelling or building something -- only to let their inhibitions shut down the pirate versus T-Rex party going on in their heads. So in order to create and innovate you have to silence the observer. This is the reason why jazz musicians can improvise so beautifully, as observed in a music-mind study that stuck a bunch of musicians in an MRI machine while they performed. Researchers found that in musicians, the part of the brain that is the seat of judgment went blissfully radio silent during improve sessions.  

2.       Collaborate, don't compete. Listen to kids when they play and the odds are you'll hear a storyline developing, with three or four other kids adding details until the tale snowballs into a fantastical lump of group creativity. The key is to share; there's nothing like being miserly with your ideas -- a signature competitive move -- to shut down originality.

3.       Abandon logic. Part of being creative is chewing on a problem. But not every problem requires a solution. And if there is a solution, it doesn't need to actually make sense. Children steep their minds in thought experiments all day long, like "What would happen if I put this box on top of this triangle?" They're working out the possibilities, not the probabilities.

4.       Seek out new experiences. Whenever my husband and I take our daughter to the botanical garden she inevitably stumbles upon something that makes her eyes widen in absolute wonder. It could be a behemoth frog sculpture or a red hot poker flower. She's adding these bewildering discoveries to her mental database, the one she uses to construct her best, most creative ideas. Shaking up your mental landscape is one of the best things you can do for your brain. So it's not surprising that a willingness to seek out new experience is also a key factor in developing genius.  

5.       Get happy. There's been a lot of information swirling around the concept of happiness lately, making it seem like it's as easy to attain as ordering it off of Amazon.com. But the fact is that happiness is hard won. And for good reason: Not only does it lift our moods, but a lack of it is one of the biggest creativity crushers. Sadness inhibits creativity -- it's a vicious cycle of fear, anxiety and lethargy. Now think about kids and happiness: Our little ones smile on average 400 times a day. Adults? Twenty.

Svitak has an important message we should all consider: "Learning between grownups and kids should be reciprocal. The reality, unfortunately, is a little different. And it has a lot to do with trust, or lack of it."

Photo credit David Trood/The Image Bank/Getty Images

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