When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.
When I was young, I didn’t think much about using my imagination. I was just a child investigating my world and trying to make sense of it in my childlike way. Like many little girls, I played with dolls, dressed up in pretend clothes, and spent time outside with my friends. I drew and painted and made forts with spare blankets and couch cushions. I role-played and pretended to be a nurse, a princess, and a champion ice skater on my roller skates. I made up games, stories, and songs, and some of my fondest memories are the ones of my friend Kim and I making up little shows to perform for our parents in my unfinished basement. When I think back to my childhood, I tend to romanticize it and make it more idyllic than it actually was, but one thing is for certain — I had a tremendous amount of imagination, and I used it a lot.
As I grew older, the creative freedom I gave myself as a child began to fall away. I conformed to the standards and expectations of my schooling, and as I grew into adulthood, I became a pragmatist and began to think of myself in terms of someone who needed to find a practical career that would pay my bills. A short stint in a position that was better suited for someone else left me unhappy and lost. I could not imagine what I had the skills or passion to pursue, but my pragmatic veneer had begun to crack. I was missing the creative endeavors and imaginative moments I had embraced as a child. In my early twenties, armed with a college degree and unsure of what I wanted my life to become, I found myself working at a preschool near my home.
Imagination and creativity were always part of conversations I had with other teachers and parents. “Children learn through play,” I was told, and we spent a lot of time figuring out how to teach and challenge children through imagination-stirring, play-filled activities. I went to conferences and read books about the topics, and as I learned about the imaginations of young children, I began to learn about imagination in me. I realized I didn’t particularly think of myself as an imaginative person — it seemed a luxury to refer to oneself as imaginative and creative, labels only reserved for the most artistic and talented. My perspective on creativity was one-dimensional and limited to producing art, but over time, my days with young children showed me how flawed my understanding of my imagination was.
Since I began that little job at a preschool, I have learned about imagination by observing the very people I was tasked to bring it to — children. By watching my young charges at play, I thought about how deeply they were engrossed in using their imaginations to work out original solutions to challenges in their lives. And I realized I did not live that way; I used my limited knowledge and experience to arrive at solutions I already knew would or would not work. That first year teaching, the preschoolers challenged my assumptions about life more than I had experienced over the years of getting my expensive college degree.
“To imagine is to dive deep into the ocean of possibilities,” Charlie Peacock writes in his book, New Way to be Human. “Imagination is the soil in which creativity lives.” I learned from this wise book that when you act upon imagination, creativity occurs. When children play, they are actively using their imagination to create scenarios and games never created before. Their little games and playful interactions seem so inconsequential until you’ve reached adulthood and realize that using your imagination to create something new can be harder than it looks.
I saw preschoolers living their little lives practically bursting with imaginative energy, and as I watched them naturally imagine and create and play, I began to tentatively test and stretch my own imaginative, creative muscles. I realized I wasn’t teaching these tiny people how to use their imaginations or how to be creative because they already were practically brimming over with innate curiosity. They were being who they were born to be — curious people. And if they were born like that, then surely I was, too. Over the years of working with children I learned to learn from them, and in the process, I have learned about myself.
1. Children challenged me to be curious.
Tim Brown, CEO of innovation and design firm IDEO, in his TED talk, “Tales of Creativity and Play,” says about curiosity, “Kids, when they come up on something, will ask what is it, and then they’ll ask what can I do with it? Playing with a cardboard box instead of the toy that came in the box makes more sense,” he says. “You can do more things with a box than with a toy.”
A few months ago, I was spending the day running errands around town and my children were with me. “Bring something to do in the car,” I told them before we piled into the car. “A book, a toy,” I suggested. “We’re going to be gone for a while.” A few minutes later as I backed out of the driveway, I glanced in the rearview mirror and instead of seeing my young son reading a book or clutching a toy, I saw he had chosen a piece of string to occupy his time. My adult experience limited the string to be just a tool for tying something together, but my son saw possibilities. Throughout the day I watched him twist the string into a man hopping around the seat and window near him. He formed letters with it, wrapped it around his hands and fingers, and twisted it into shapes and designs.
Twelve-year-old child prodigy, writer, and speaker, Adora Svitka says, “Our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of reality. Kids don’t think of limitations . . . they just think of good ideas.” As I observed my son playing with the string that day, I thought of that quote. Where I would have chosen a book to read in the car, my child had sought out something that for him held unlimited possibilities and good ideas.
Two little girls and their mothers visited my house last spring, and as the girls played outside and investigated my backyard, their mothers and I watched them through my living room window. I looked in my yard and saw the rusty patio chairs and the weeds by the grill, the dead basil plant I had forgotten to water, and the broken terra-cotta pot I kept forgetting to throw away. But those little girls saw none of the imperfections. They were busy. They overturned stones and inspected flowerbeds. They counted the bricks on the back wall of the house and tried to look inside a birdhouse. I can honestly say I’d never spent that kind of time looking at the tiny details of my backyard. I tend to think of the yard in terms of what needs to be cleaned up, planted, made more attractive — especially those overgrown flowerbeds. Now when I’m in the yard pulling weeds I think of those little girls and try to see the yard from their perspective — an undiscovered space ready to be found.
Once, at my son’s preschool, I watched a group of children busily playing together outside on the playground. Closer inspection of their activity and careful listening revealed that the group of five or six boys and girls were digging in the dirt and sand to build a dam. The preschool had provided plenty of outside garden tools for the children to use, and the children had each taken a tiny child-size shovel and were digging out a large hole. I watched a couple of kids toss shovelfuls of dirt into buckets, and then some of the other children carried the buckets away. When the teacher asked them what they were doing, they said, “We’re building a dam, and we want to see what will happen when we add water to the hole.”
Finally, the children told the teacher their dam was ready for water. The teacher hooked up a hose, and the boys and girls dragged it over to their dam. I stood back as the children gathered and watched the water fill their muddy hole, eventually spilling over the edges and creating a large puddle.
The kids stood around and watched for a few moments, and then one of them said, “Let’s keep digging.” Instead of being satisfied with the science lesson they had just experienced, they decided to investigate some more. They remained curious. My adult mind would have stopped the investigation; the children dug deeper into their idea.
They’re only crayons. You didn’t fear them in kindergarten, why fear them now?
—Hugh MacLeod, Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity
2. Children challenged me to be brave.
It takes tremendous courage to try something new and risk making a mistake or failing, and for the young child, that new, scary thing is often as simple as picking up a paintbrush and painting on a blank sheet of paper, or attempting to write their name for the first time, or sounding out a word as they begin to learn to read. I watched the children in my care try the projects and ideas I had planned for them, and as some of the children eagerly experimented with the material, others tried the projects with apprehension, preferring to observe for a moment before trying the project for the first time. As I watched the tentative children drum up the courage to try something, I saw that they gained confidence by taking that first step, and I thought, I did that when I was little — maybe I should try to approach projects that way now, too.
The more the young children investigated the art materials I set out for them, the more enthusiastic I became about trying them as well. Often, the results were messy and imperfect, and the children and I ended up covered in splatters of paint. Successful creative experiences build confidence, and the more courage I gathered to take creative risks, the less I worried about achieving a perfect product. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original” (Sir Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds, Learning to be Creative).
In his TED talk, Tim Brown says this about not being creatively inhibited as adults: “We fear the judgment of our peers. Fear causes us to be conservative in our ideas.” Children are open to any idea and are not limited in what they consider possible.”
Ask a young child what she’ll be when she grows up and the answers will range from a superhero to a princess to a dinosaur. If you had asked my youngest son a few years ago what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have answered, “Yoda.” The child doesn’t know those things aren’t quite possible and will claim their future selves with confident ownership. Walt Disney once said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” It’s fun to imagine the impossible as well.
In 2005, Gever Tulley began a summer camp program in Northern California for children to foster the sense of curiosity we all once had. His Tinkering School gathers groups of children to investigate, explore, experiment, test, and build ideas the kids come up with by using real tools and real materials. Children have built a working roller coaster, boats, and motorcycles during their time at the camp. They begin with doodling ideas, collaborating and problem solving, and are not inhibited by the adult fears of building something too big or difficult. “Every step in a project is either a step closer to sweet success or gleeful calamity,” he says.
When I learned of the Tinkering School, there was a part of me that longs to be there as a participant. How would my life have been different if I had been encouraged to explore what I was curious about? Would I be the child who found interesting possibilities in a piece of string? What choices would I have made if I had not feared the judgment of my peers? As I watched young children try new things, sometimes with exuberance and sometimes with trepidation, it occurred to me that I should live my life in such a way that I challenge myself to take a risk and try something new. And if the results end in success or calamity, I would, at the very least, have opened my imagination to possibility.
3. Children challenged me to play.
Somehow as I grew up, I had forgotten how to play, how to immerse myself in my imagination and lose track of time. My work, my day, had been scheduled with responsibility and even drudgery. Must adulthood mean we can never lose ourselves in our imaginations?
Susan Schaeffer MacCaulay, in her book For the Children’s Sake, quotes educator Charlotte Mason on the subject of free, imaginative play: “Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair; and in those affairs the elders must neither meddle or make.”
When I began working with young children, I was encouraged to stand back and simply observe the children in their play. I watched the children play alone and in groups. I watched them play on swings, ride on tricycles and dig in a sandbox. I noticed two children standing together looking closely at a tree and when I looked a little bit closer, I saw they were watching a line of ants move up and down the bark. Several of the children had found child-size rakes and were raking fallen leaves into lines to form squares on the ground under a large tree in the center of the playground. “These are our houses,” they told me and they pointed out the rectangular shapes of brown and golden leaves their imaginations had turned into bedrooms and kitchens. As I watched the children play, the scent of the damp leaves and the warm sun in the crisp fall air made me remember the crisp autumn afternoons of my own childhood and the bliss of throwing myself with abandon onto the piles of fallen leaves my parents had gathered for me. The memory caught me off guard and I had to catch my breath at the poignant thought. Suddenly, the children playing “house” with piles of leaves became more than a creative thing to do, it became a reminder of the essence of my childhood in which life had been simple innocence and play.
A few weeks ago, I spent time with a group of preschoolers at their school. I joined them for the day and during music time, taught them some songs they hadn’t sung before.
Later at snack time one little girl said that the day had been a happy one for her and that her favorite thing had been singing together. “Which song was your favorite?” I asked. Surprising me, she chose the song I had picked as an afterthought — a song I thought would fill up some time and wasn’t particularly my favorite or the most creative. The song was about a child looking outside a window and watching a pumpkin vine growing and observing the things that were growing on the pumpkin vine. And then in the song, I pause and ask the kids to suggest things to grow on the vine, and then we sing them — no matter their request. That day we had sung, “Green leaves growing on my pumpkin vine . . . apples growing on my pumpkin vine . . . Legos growing on my pumpkin vine,” and so on.
The little girl sitting with me said, “I love the song about the pumpkin vine. Sing it again,” she said, “and this time put me in it.”
I sang it again. This time with her name, “Savannah was growing on the pumpkin vine.”
She giggled and said, “Put Jackson in the song.” So we sang the song again: ”Jackson was growing on the pumpkin vine.” The other children at the snack table all laughed, and one by one, they asked to be put in the song. So of course we did. I have learned over the years to listen to what children have to say — I never know when my adult mind will be challenged to see things in a different light and learn something about myself and about life. We sang that song at least a dozen times putting each child who asked into the song.
Now, 18 years after beginning that first day of working with preschoolers, I think differently. I’ve reclaimed the imaginative, curious self I had when I was a child. Even though I’m an adult and parent living a life of responsibility and duty, I’ve stretched my creative muscles to challenge myself to try new things that force me out of the predictable world I tend to create for myself, and I try to remember to take time and play.
Krista Barré lives with her husband and three children in Franklin, Tennessee, where she teaches art to preschoolers for the Arts Council of Williamson County. Krista likes to read, write, and collect unusual items to paint with including mops and feather dusters. She regularly sings "Pumpkin Vine" and many other songs from the album I Have a Box (Bev Bos, Michael Leeman, and Tom Hunter) to preschoolers at snack time.