The fantasy filled cradle of creativity

Last Updated 20 March 2013, 11:45 IST

Creativity in adulthood is steeped in  childlike fantasies, writes Aruna Sankaranarayanan.  

 Insatiable curiosity and a fertile imagination are two distinctive features of childhood that sadly fade with maturity in most people. In the process of growing up, or ironically getting educated, we lose touch with these childlike facets of our personality.

 This is indeed lamentable as a number of creative geniuses across diverse domains feel there is an explicit link between creative potential and the fluid thought processes of a child. Taking cue from these inspirational titans, perhaps, we should awaken the inner child in us. Moreover, if parents and educators are more conscious of nurturing rather than quelling creative expression in children, perhaps we will witness a renaissance of talent.

Watch any four-year old immersed in play. As Satish places the twelfth block on his tower gingerly or Sahana dresses her dolls with gusto for a make-believe wedding, the children are oblivious to the external world and engage in play for sheer pleasure. This aspect of childhood play is a prerequisite for all creative acts. After interviewing over ninety outstanding people in fields as diverse as literature, science, acting, art, and music, psychologist Csikszentmihalyi found that the one trait “that is most consistently present in all creative individuals is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake.” In fact, Freud says, “The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously—that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion—while separating it sharply from reality.”
 Harvard educationist Howard Gardner argues that “the adult creator draws repeatedly on the capital of childhood.” He cites the example of Einstein who remarked that the problems that he was working on were similar to questions that children ponder on. Einstein had said “a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time.” In fact, Einstein was so captivated by children’s minds that he motivated the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget to probe children’s thinking of speed and time.  

In an article in The New York Times, Maria Popova asks the writer Ray Bradbury of Fahrenheit 451 fame, the secret of his success. The author confesses, “You remain invested in your inner child by exploring every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past — you just explode.” Another virtuoso, Picasso, also sensed a nexus between a childlike mind and creative potential. He once told a fellow-painter, “What one can consider an early genius is actually the genius of childhood.” Thus, giants in fields from science to writing to painting to psychoanalysis acknowledge the immense potential that children harbour in their burgeoning minds. Further, these individuals feel that they were able to make domain-changing contributions to their disciplines because they retained a childlike fascination.  

But why does this creative spark get extinguished with age? Educationist Ken Robinson notes that most adults do not view themselves as creative while a majority of children do so. He bemoans that, “we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Often we are educated out of it.” 

What can we adults do to awaken our dormant creative instincts? How can parents and teachers prevent the creative tide from ebbing in children so that imagination and innovation continue to flourish into adulthood?

Foremost, we need to alter our narrow utilitarian view of education. Currently, our schools mirror the values of the marketplace. A bullish fixation on stock prices is translated to an obsession with marks and ranks. Furthermore, this attitude has a rub-off effect not only on education but also on the way we perceive childhood itself. Is childhood simply a preparation for future adulthood when one is expected to bring in bread and butter for the family? According to childhood specialist, Priscilla Alderson, this attitude where “childhood is valued so much for its effects on future adult earning power, and not for itself” can indeed stifle the most wondrous stage of human life.

In her book on childhood, British author Libby Brooks contrasts the “Anglo-American obsession with outcomes” to the refreshing view of the Swedish who value childhood in and of itself. At a conference in London on child care, a Swedish delegate, when asked about the benefits of her country’s child care, remarked, “We don’t regard preschool as preparation for school or work, but as a place to have a happy childhood.” Unfortunately, the Indian outlook is more akin to the Anglo-American one.

Today’s overscheduled child and adult has scant time to “just be” as every moment has to be accounted for in some ‘productive’ pursuit. According to psychiatrist Anthony Storr, solitude is essential for creative development. Only when an individual is left to himself, to do as he pleases, will he be able to deliberate and discover hidden vistas in himself. Thus, we need to give ourselves and our children time to relax, reflect, and rejuvenate.We also need to broaden our view of ability or ‘intelligence’ to encompass the full range of human potential. By putting academic potential on a pedestal, we often fail to nurture other forms of creative expression in ourselves and our children. Gardner urges parents and teachers to foster exploratory zeal in children. Young developing minds and bodies should not be prevented from engaging in acts that lead to discovery or made to believe that there is only one correct way to do things. Being more accepting of errors and persisting in the face of apparent failure is also essential for any original endeavour.

Terrance Tao, a recipient of the Fields Medal, says that making a discovery in mathematics involves coming up with one “wrong idea” after another until, “finally by process of elimination you come up with something that does work.” In fact, Einstein also acknowledged the pivotal role of errors in any creative work when he said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake, has never tried anything new.”

Further, learning about the lives of creative individuals can inspire future acts of creativity. If we provide children with the physical and psychological space to follow their interests in nonthreatening environments, we are more likely to see children blossom into real creators who carve a niche in the world.  

(Published 20 March 2013, 11:45 IST)

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