Columns, Imagine That

Building imagination muscle

Sarah, a bright six-year-old girl, just received a jigsaw puzzle for her birthday — 380 pieces. As she tries to put the puzzle together, she realizes how challenging it is. There are more and smaller pieces, and the patterns and shapes are more varied than her other puzzles. Her father watches as Sarah slowly starts to make her way. He offers some help, but only when she is clearly stumped and asks for assistance. Sometimes her father is tempted to just do it for her, fearing she will get too frustrated. But he knows it is important for Sarah to learn to love the challenge of trying something new.

Sarah is exercising her creativity. When we hear the word “creativity” most of us think of the arts. Music, visual arts, and dance are great places for children to hone the skills necessary to apply creativity in all aspects of their lives. The freeform nature of the materials used in the arts encourages children to find their own way, which is the fundamental principle of creativity.

Imagination is like a muscle that must be exercised to maintain prime condition; the arts are like exercise for the imagination. It matters little whether or not a child is artistically inclined; she or he must be given the space to flex their “creativity muscle” and develop this skill outside of the confines of labels like “artistically gifted.”

As we progress through the information age, it is becoming more readily apparent that creativity is a discipline that is used across all aspects of life, including mathematics, science, and business, as well as in artistic pursuits.

Creativity isn’t just the ability to draw well or write music; rather, creativity is the ability to think of things in a new way, regardless of the discipline to which the  creative thinking is applied.

“The brain is not only the organ that stores and retrieves our previous experience, it is also the organ that combines and creatively reworks elements of this past experience and uses them to generate new propositions and new behavior,” explained pioneering Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, whose work, conducted in the 1930s, is being rediscovered today.

“If human activity were limited to reproduction of the old, then the human being would be a creature oriented only to the past and would only be able to adapt to the future to the extent that it reproduced the past. It is precisely human creative activity that makes the human being a creature oriented toward the future, creating the future and thus altering his own present.”

Vygotsky, the “Mozart of Psychology,” extensively studied the psychology of play in children and was on to something that is vital to functioning in today’s society. Creativity isn’t just the ability to draw well or write music; rather, creativity is the ability to think of things in a new way, regardless of the discipline to which the creative thinking is applied. In the fast-paced digital world, the ability to adapt and look to the future is a skill necessary to succeed.

Vygotsky stressed the importance of self-regulation and independent learning, along with the importance of a “knowledgeable other.” Our demand for more testing in our overcrowded classrooms requires the teacher to place too much importance on the “knowledgeable other.” Had Sarah’s father just shown her how to do the puzzle, they would have finished much faster and an opportunity for Sarah to exercise her creativity muscles would have been lost.

The good news for parents is that these opportunities are everywhere because children are learning all the time. We need only to apply the same process we used when our children learned to walk. Guiding them with our hands at first but delivering only enough support and information for our children to be able to take the next step on their own, eventually finding their own way. Imagine that!

The authors

Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.storymann.com), a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura. The father and daughter collaborate on “Imagine That!”

© Michael Mann, 2010, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.