“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” ―Pablo Picasso
All human beings are creative by nature. Young children know this in their hearts, but as we grow older most of us begin to have doubts. We live in a culture that discourages creative thought and wants us to believe that artistic ability is rare. Over time, most of us learn not to color (or think) outside the box.
For children raised in competitive authoritarian societies, their creative efforts may be criticized by parents or teachers, their work compared to inflexible “standards” and expectations held by others. In the early part of the last century, the educational systems of “leading nations” were intentionally designed (by those in positions of power) to inhibit creative thought and independence, so as to encourage conformity and obedience to authority.
In reality, each of us has great untapped creative potential, but like seeds, each person’s unique talents need to be cultivated, encouraged and nurtured. Here below are a few ideas on how to help children be more skillful and creative, and remove any doubts you may still hold about your own potential.
First, seek joy, not perfection. It’s in our power to cultivate a love of learning and creativity within ourselves and others. Most artists experience happiness and satisfaction while being creative, they enjoy the process of making things. Taking risks, making mistakes, solving problems together with others and experimenting are all essential parts of the creative process.
To maintain confidence, it is essential not to compare children with one another. Comparative thinking is a big killer of intrinsic motivation and creativity, especially in schools where children are constantly tested and given grades. Most of us gave up certain activities and art forms because we saw how well others were doing and began to doubt our own potential.
This form of schooling is “mis-educative,” as John Dewey put it, because the learning environment actually discourages skill development and interest in the future. The best way to nurture confidence is to help young people experience joy with an activity, to accept themselves as beginners and have fun.
It’s okay for adults to have high expectations, as long as they are not rigid standards that snuff out children’s confidence, curiosity, creativity, interest and love of learning. As Maria Montessori put it, “One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.”
When learners are not self-critical and judgmental (about their mistakes) then intrinsic motivation arises. This is the happiness one sees in young children, which institutional schooling and standardized testing can crush or inhibit.
Most artists are self-directed learners, who spend much of their free time creatively practicing and learning about what they enjoy. I live and teach in Japan, and one of the key cultural differences I’ve noticed is that much emphasis is placed on practice and imitation, but that creative freedom and self-direction is usually discouraged.
The result is countless Japanese children and adults who have mastered the skills of piano or violin, but have never been given the chance to write or sing their own songs. Creativity requires that we experiment, explore and take risks, listen to (and express) the music rising in our souls.
One of the best ways to inspire learning and enjoy being creative is to to study and imitate what we most love. All artists begin by copying and imitating others who inspire them. Bob Dylan imitated Woody Guthrie’s style of singing, Van Gogh made copies of Japanese prints and pointillist paintings, the Beatles began by covering the songs of other musicians they enjoyed.
Children will benefit if they are encouraged to spend significant time with (and learn from) the creative works of skillful people who inspire them. This kind of engagement is a critical part of a child’s education, and does not have to happen in school. As a teacher, I often give this as a homework assignment, encouraging my students to spend time with creative works they enjoy and then write (or make a presentation) about their experience.
To enjoy the creative process it can be helpful to understand the role of mindfulness and flow in building skills and developing greater mastery. When we are learning and being creative, mindful concentration results in an enjoyable psychological state of focused attention sometimes called “being in the zone” or “flow.”
Experiencing flow is a sign that one’s skills are being challenged, that you are growing and learning. Whether its playing the piano, reading books or riding a bicycle- a person’s skills will naturally improve because of all the time, concentration and practice they put into an activity. Most young children understand this intuitively, but as we get older it’s sometimes helpful to be reminded.
Thinking too much about the future, or feeling that you are being forced to do something, is a distraction that blocks us from developing our full potential. So many of the world’s problems and unhappiness comes from a sense of something missing- people chasing after happiness, material success, social status, future outcomes or instant gratification.
Schools have trained us to to comply with the demands of those in authority positions, to believe that happiness and freedom has to be put off. We are then unable to experience the simple joys of being creative, talented and alive- right here and now on this planet.
In a sense, everyone’s life is a potential work of art, but we and our children have been brainwashed to believe otherwise. If one looks carefully at the history of institutionalized education, it appears that “factory model” schools were designed by wealthy industrialists at the turn of the last century. They wanted to train children to become obedient workers and materialistic consumers (who would buy their products in the future), rather than creative artists and self-reliant producers, anchored happily in the present.
It’s therefore the responsibility of parents and teachers who know better to challenge and change this archaic paradigm. To do so we need to first “free” ourselves from the myths we’ve been taught, then show our children how life provides endless opportunities for creative freedom, learning, mastery and joy.
* Self-Direction is the Key to Mastery * Flow- The Psychology of Optimal Experience * Understanding How Our Brains Learn * Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education * Real Learning is a Creative Process * Children Need to Be Free to Learn * How Wisdom Grows * It’s a Pink Floyd World – Welcome (Back) to the Machine * How We Participate in the Creative Life of the Universe *