Yesterday morning when I went about my usual morning routine of turning on the kitchen radio to NPR while I got breakfast on the table for the kids and sipped my coffee, I heard the very exciting play by play of NASA’s incredible and successful landing of “Curiosity” on the surface of Mars. So exciting! I returned to my bedroom where the kids were doing their normal morning snuggling in the big bed while watching something the agree- upon “nickjr.com” video on my laptop. After a short episode of “Max and Ruby”, I crawled under the covers in between them to show them a video of the Mars landing. The one I found is a computer-generated version of the “plan”, narrated by experts explaining all the possible things that could have gone wrong, but didn’t. Of course, none of us quite understood it, but is was super-exciting, and inspiring. (A little more complex than the storybook character Harold’s purple crayon-initiated landing on Mars where he disembarks from his rocket ship and is immediately greeted by a sign: “Welcome to Mars”.) Watch the video with your children, and let it inspire their imaginations, their dreams and aspirations, their vision of what is possible! Talk about how scientists believe that there used to be water on Mars, which means there probably was life, which means that someday it might be possible for people from Earth to live on Mars! Wowie-Zowie! Let it inspire you to give them the downtime they need to daydream, to explore, to play, to read, to question and wonder, to build and create, to think.
I recently heard a fascinating interview by author and neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer on his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works*. In it he stresses the importance of down-time for encouraging creativity, for coming up with our best ideas, and solving difficult problems. Think about it: Isaac Newton had time to rest and ponder sitting under an apple tree, Galileo had time to gaze at the heavens and wonder about the universe, Emily Dickinson had time to sit and study nature, Da Vinci had time to experiment. Surely Bill Gates and other great thinkers, artists, scientists, and creators of our time have had time for quality “navel-gazing” as a crucial step in forming and shaping the ideas that have changed our world, including the daring vision to send a rover to Mars.
Here’s what you need to know about creativity as an intentional parent:
- Creativity is not a unique characteristic. Research shows that we all have it in varying degrees because our brains are connection-making machines, given a chance to be.
- Our greatest creative ideas come when we are relaxed. I almost always have my “aha” moments when I’m napping, on a walk, or in the shower. After all, the shower is the last place in our worlds where we can’t check our e-mail or use our smart-phones. (Let’s hope it stays that way.) It is a quiet zone where (when not disturbed by young children telling on each other or whining about being hungry), we can actually allow our minds to wander.
- Take a break! Lehrer suggests that when you can’t solve a problem, when you are experiencing “writer’s block” or just hit a wall in a creative endeavor; that the best thing to do is to step away from the desk, to get out of your “pre-frontal cortex” and let your brain relax. The answer will only arise when you stop looking for it. This makes me wonder…how many of our overwhelmed, over-pressured and over-scheduled kids and teens get a chance to “step away” from their desks, their homework, their “must accomplish for college admission” lists to clear their minds, or are we always standing over them demanding that they “stay on task”?
- Let your mind wander. Not only does he stress the importance of “down-time”, but includes in this daydreaming and sleep. instead of faulting children for “day-dreaming”, we should realize that this is when and how the best brain connections are made. And we all know that sleep is crucial for restoration of the brain and body, but also for processing and storing all of the brain connections that have been made during periods of stimulation. Yet most of us, including our children are NOT getting enough of it. (For more on this incredibly important sleep issue, see my post “Sleep: The Lost Hour”.)
- Down-time is NOT wasted time. And it doesn’t mean zoning out in front of the TV or computer. It means non-structured, un-scheduled time to let your mind guide your activity. Sometimes it means boredom, and research shows the importance of boredom for self-regulation skills, self-motivation, and more. In a culture obsessed with productivity and results, it is crucial that parents and teachers remind themselves that down-time is productive time. My brother Jake, a creative play-wright and author in Chicago used his down-time as a child to make up plays with his little Lego men, and to record commercials and “shows” with me on audio tapes. My young student Will (5) spends his down-time singing opera in his room, and memorizing the track numbers on his Kindermusik CD’s. He is discovering and honing his passion for music!
- listen to interview from “Think”
- He has recently started flying to space in a special uniform: an empty rice box as a jet pack, a basket helmet, sock-hands, of course, and fireman galoshes (occasionally just with undies). He made a space camera that takes pictures (construction paper and ribbon), then comes in and downloads the pics onto his printer (cardboard box that he’s added all sorts of buttons to), and “prints” (draws) out amazing pictures of the planets and all his findings. MJ: space man!
- Once after “rest” time, I found him wearing a little round cap made of aluminum foil. He asked me to try to guess what he was thinking about. Ummm – cats? cookies? I was wrong every time, which proved that his invention had worked. He had made a helmet to protect people from reading his mind!
- This spring MJ literally spent hours in our garage and driveway (over a period of several months) perfecting his “motor-bike”, and outfitting with all the latest technical gadgets: communicators, AC and GPS and such (more tape and ribbons)
- Last week MJ made a solar oven out of an old pizza box. He actually melted some cheese on a plate of chips out in the heat of the backyard for solar nachos. Ellie has since made her own solar cooker, as well, according to her own design (and using a shoe box).
- He has recently created (with materials around the house) a sock dispenser, a zip line, a double record player, a boat with water skis, and more. All of this creating involves planning, measuring, diagramming, problem-solving, trouble-shooting, fine motor skills, spatial reasoning and other math skills, and duh, CREATIVE THINKING! It is so good for allowing his little brain to have this time for making important cognitive connections, for practicing these executive functioning skills, for exploring his world, for feeding his curiosity, for developing independence, self-motivation, and to enjoy the process of his work. There aren’t many planned extra-curriculars that provide all of that! And I think schools should provide MORE of it. It’s not about the product, it’s about the process! It’s not about the performance (stage or standardized test), it’s about the active learning!
And Ellie? Here’s how she spends her down-time…
And how do I spend my down-time? DOING THIS BLOG!!! And I’m glad I do. Let me know if you are…
*Since writing this article, I have heard some sad news about this author. Poor guy apparently didn’t check a few facts falsified a few quotes by Bob Dylan, and his book has been pulled from most shelves. However, his research and info on creativity is still accurate and helpful to parents and teachers. And now he’s reminded us of another important life lesson to model for children: don’t lie.