Archives for posts with tag: creativity

shell-sand close upIf we take the time to watch children, and I mean really watch them rather than pre-judging or paying lip service to this as we busy adults are prone to do, then they can do as Rudyard Kipling suggest, ‘teach us delight in simple things’. It doesn’t happen though unless we give them the time and freedom to become truly absorbed in whatever captures their interest, be it an unusual stone, an insect or inviting puddle.

If you’ve ever tried to walk anywhere fast you’ll know how much there is for young children to marvel at in everyday life and how open they are to its possibilities. Us adults in contrast miss so much by virtue of being in a rush and plagued by preconceptions. With this in mind storytelling guru #MiltonErickson implores adults to look afresh at our environment saying “Did you know that every blade of grass is a different shade of green?” 1 In so doing we can open our minds to new possibilities and be rewarded with wondrous awe and wonder, discovering a wealth of patterns, symmetry, joy and inspiration in everyday nature.

If you need a reminder of nature’s awe and wonder then google ‘sand grains microscope’ on the internet and be amazed by the gloriously detailed, highly patterned images that you will see.  I guarantee you will never look at a sandy beach in quite the same way again! Inspired by the sticky globule left by some gorgeous Longiflora lilies, my 11 year old dusted off her magnifier to take a closer look. What followed said it all, as she gasped with awe as a multitude of dash-like lines came into view. How fitting then that her science homework was to create a cell? Choosing a plant cell to make, she set to work with jelly, a bouncy ball and loom bands to create the different #cell parts! If you want to have a go at making your own cell or even a cellular cake, check out http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Model-Cell. For more microscopic inspiration treat yourself to The Natural World Close Up (Giles Sparrow, 2011). Much more than just a coffee table book, children and adults alike will be wowed by the close up views of nature revealed. So go ahead and enjoy nature close up this weekend.

1 (My Voice Will Go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson, Sidney Rosen, 1991).

Image source – http://geology.com/articles/sand-grains.shtml

Nature's Miracles

Albert Einstein is attributed with saying:

“There are two ways to live. You can live as if nothing is a miracle or you can live as if everything is a miracle. “

It seems to me that children are naturally endowed with an appreciation of awe and wonder, easily finding miracles in a frozen puddle, fossil, unusual shell or snowflake. Given time, children’s fascination for detail and a positive disposition help prime them for spotting the abundant miracles offered by Mother nature, the very same things that often pass us adults by. Reading this quote really struck a chord for me. As a parent I feel that a key part of my role is about providing magical moments in my children’s lives, from Christmas stockings to fairy notes or even just an amazing icicle that I’ve spotted or a picture of a building or construction vehicle that I think they’d enjoy. These little pieces of magic don’t have to cost the earth but bring real pleasure and delight. For a baby where every experience brings something exciting, finding out that a metal tin can be open and shut, makes noise when banged or a rattle when filled and shaken, are all mini miracles to discover.

Striding purposefully to school one balmy spring afternoon last week my eyes were drawn to a young boy on the other side of the road. Aged about three years old, he walked slowly yet equally purposefully, with his neck craned upwards and his head looking skyward. The source of wonderment was the billowing petals on a cherry tree, filling the sky with creamy blossom and literally captivating this little boy’s interest. As he approached the densest part of the canopy, nearest the trunk, he slowed to a standstill, just staring open-mouthed at the laden brunches above. His mum (I presume) who had been walking a little way ahead, turned and paused before remarking upon how beautiful the tree was. Unhurried he moved on, his gaze averted by the speckled pattern of blossom on the floor.

Walking back from school with my children I told them about the little boy and suggested that we cross the road so that we too could enjoy its magic and the miracle of nature’s abundant store cupboard. And that’s exactly what we did, whilst trying to catch fluttering petals in our hands and open mouths!

This half term saw my children try their hand at all manner of creative pursuits. From lantern making to glass decorating; Mexican flowers to God’s eyes; photosensitive creations to spoon whittling; musical graphics to cartoon drawing and a sprinkling of baking in between. I knew that all this artistic expression had had a positive effect when my 10 year old daughter announced to her dad that ‘We’re all artists you know’.

Like so many things in life, practice and mastery breeds confidence which in turns enables creativity to flourish. This progression was certainly in evidence when my 7 and 10 year old decided to create wooden spoons from split logs. An hours whittling yielded smooth pale bark stripped logs, then began the lengthy process of creating the ‘bowl’ of the spoon. For this we lit a fire and collected embers to carefully position on the logs and burn a hole. With adult support the children mastered the art of safely collecting embers, innovating as they did so by using a fire blower to both hold in place and ignite the embers! Next came more whittling, sawing and sanding as the children shaped their creations to something resembling a spoon. In this era of instant gratification it is important to celebrate the process as much, if not more, than the end product. This prepares children for life’s lessons that achieving almost anything great is hard work and that if you have a vision you can realise it.

When it comes to divergent thinking we know that prior to school most children would be ranked as geniuses. Yet years of colouring within the lines and learning that green is for grass and blue for sky can stifle this creativity leading children to declare “I’m not very artistic” or “I can’t draw.” A first step in reversing this trend is for us adults to rediscover our own creativity and immerse ourselves in a culture of artistic expression. You only have to look at the winners of the Turner Prize to see that we are all potential artists. It’s just a matter of how we look at the world around us, be it a messy bedroom or the carcass of a cow!

From Japan to Malaysia and America to Australia, helicopter parenting it seems is a universally recognised phenomenon credited with reducing physical activity, stifling risk-taking and creativity and developing depression in children. We know of the health and emotional benefits of children accessing outdoor environments, but should they really have to do so in order to recover from the stresses of everyday life? With children’s lives increasingly mapped out, filled by an endless stream of classes, clubs and tutoring designed to give our children the best start in life, it is ironic that freedom to play with sticks, stones and mud outdoors may actually be what children need best.

I firmly believe that our role as adults is as ‘memory and meaning makers’ for children. It is also about instilling children with the confidence to explore the unknown, take calculated risks, make mistakes and ultimately learn from these. This cannot happen if children are cosseted and deprived the freedom and opportunities to practice making decisions.

So how do you make decisions in your household over what to do and when? Do the adults make all the plans? Are the children in control or do you manage to achieve the holy grail of calm consensus? With a background in consensus building – it’s what I used to do to help disparate groups make decisions and galvanise action, I find these same techniques have currency in family life too. That’s not to suggest that processes like these should happen all the time, as that would tip this into the realms of micro managing and would be far too unspontaneous for my liking, but when I get out coloured paper and start cutting it into business card size pieces, the excitement among my 7 and 10 year old is palpable. In fact they have now taken over the paper cutting stage of the process! What makes it all the more special is picking a good family moment, like a leisurely Saturday morning breakfast, where the plan evolves magically from a table strewn with paper and cereal packets.

We start by each writing our own priorities on separate pieces of paper. The only rule is that this needs to include a couple of essentials like ‘tidy my bedroom’ or ‘put my clothes away’, after all this is essential preparation for life.  Once finished all the ‘cards’ are turned face down and we take it in turns picking a card to turn over and read. If we agree with the idea we leave it face up, if not it is turned over. Any cards left face up at the end of this stage have been agreed by us all without a smidgen of sibling rivalry. With a firm foundation of consensus we then look at the face-down cards to agree what should happen to these ideas. Often the reason the card was turned over becomes readily apparent, with ideas like ‘Go to the moon’ having crept in from my 7 year old! We talk about why we can’t, in this case go to the moon, and then I secretly plan a moon-themed tea anyway, because, why not? Sometimes we add headers for Saturday and Sunday to start to plan each day, other times we just go with the flow.

If you’re thinking that this all sounds too planned and contrived for your liking, don’t worry there’s plenty of scope for being spontaneous. Some of the actions are as quick and simple as ‘buy a bone for the dog’, while others involve much more preparation and time, and some, dare I say it chore-orientated actions never seem to get done! So last weekend a trip to Ikea was agreed but there was still time and space to combine this with our first family trip to Lakeside, bungee trampolining and meatballs, (beef and pork I hope), at Ikea for tea! Consensus building may not be for everyone but for us it is a fun and satisfying way to avoid wasting time bickering in a family with two independent-minded children. Most importantly perhaps it’s a delight watching children’s growing sense of responsibility and pride at being listened to and valued, as their vision and ideas, even that trip to the moon, are realised.

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After a break from blogging and what felt like a very long winter, Spring it seems, is finally here. Typically a time for new beginnings and a dose of spring cleaning, changes are certainly a foot in the British education system. However, the proposals being mooted for early years could not be described as a metaphorical lick of paint or sprucing up, but something fundamentally different – a wholesale demolition of the cornerstones of early learning. It seems that no amount of evidence will convince Whitehall of the value of play, and by that I mean unashamedly free, child-initiated play. Fundamental to young children’s social, emotional and physical development, play is often described as children’s work. It lies at the heart of every aspect of a child’s healthy growth and development and if not given adequate opportunities to vent this innate drive, children’s physical and emotional development will quite literally be stunted. If we want children to grow up sheepish, blindly following commands or conversely so disengaged from learning that they already feel labelled as failures, then the sort of system envisaged by Truss, with increased ratios, may be exactly what the Doctor ordered. If on the other hand we aspire for children to develop into free thinking innovators, able to solve the challenges of the world and deal with the problems that the excesses of previous generations have left behind, then this is not the best approach. We cannot miraculously expect to ignite children’s creativity and problem solving simply by the flick of a switch if they have been bought up expecting to be spoon-fed knowledge and to think inside the box.

In fact as these latest ill-conceived proposals demonstrate adults do not have a monopoly on good ideas, often failing to see what’s before their eyes. Children in contrast are technically geniuses before they enter the education system!  Whilst walking through a flower speckled field at the weekend, my 7 year old son stopped to pick three buttercups. A little further on he paused to look up at a tree before selecting a small heart-shaped leaf to pick. Turning to me he asked how he could make a small hole in the leaf. I helped him (purposely not asking him why) and having threaded the flowers through the hole, was rewarded with a beautiful miniature bouquet, fit for a fairy princess. No amount of guesses as to what he was going to do with the leaf would have yielded this exquisitely proportioned bouquet and he rather than I would have excelled in a creativity test. He had a vision and spent time selecting the tools, in this case flowers and a leaf that were fit for purpose.

Returning to the current political debate it is dangerous to look at the experience of other cultures and pick the bits that best fit with our agenda. The Government may see the appeal of orderly French early years settings but not be so drawn to the strongly unionised (dare I say rebellious) culture that predominates French adult life. Of course we want children to grow up having manners and respect and in some households no doubt this is lacking and needs redressing, but Elizabeth Truss is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. To control play is to destroy the very essence of childhood. Any good early years practitioner knows only too well that subservient robotic children is all too often the sign of something sinister at work. It is as absurd as assuming that the lack of crying in pre 1990 Romanian orphanages was a sign of happy children. We know at all too costly a price what social and emotional deprivation looks like because we can see it from these neglected children’s brain scans. We can also surmise that the reason these babies didn’t cry was not because they were happy but because they knew it wouldn’t make any difference, having learnt all too soon that they would not receive affection  or comfort. If you’ve ever seen children lacklusterly following adult commands, (because they have no interest or ideas of their own); not asking those all important ‘why’ questions, (because they know they won’t be answered, or worse still these will get them into trouble); or trying to please adults by carefully not making any mess during play (because they can read adult’s emotional cues), you will know how stilted and unnatural these ‘play episodes’ are. Yet if we are to listen to Whitehall this should be what we aspire to!

In a literacy lesson last week my 10 year old daughter was considering Government proposals to lengthen the school working day and reduce holidays. The task was to consider the pros and cons of these changes and write a letter to Michael Gove in response to the consultation. After discussing the relative advantages and disadvantages she drafted a well-considered consultation response where she proposed that the school day could be lengthened in the summer term if the extra time was dedicated to outdoor activities – what a great idea! Not only are physical education and outdoor experiences vital to children’s physical, social and emotional well being, providing a buffer to the stresses of everyday life, but if you’ve ever managed to crack a challenging problem after taking the dog for a walk or gardening, you’ll have experienced for yourself its benefits to critical thinking and problem solving. The last line of her letter delivered a decisive blow as she reminded Mr Gove that ‘more time at school does not necessarily mean more learning’. It was this final line that made me bristle with pride and dare I say it encapsulated the fruits of a playful mind nurtured by a playful childhood.  Roll on National Children’s Day and our chance to put children back at the heart of the early years.