Many of us remember with great fondness the delight in opening a new box of crayons. Or small plastic cans of Play-Doh. Or the delight of getting our hands wet and messy as we painted our first finger painting. Or building with blocks. All of these are ways that children can explore the world, their own thoughts, to become exposed to new techniques and avenues of expressing themselves, forming new connections between things, and learning how their mistakes can lead to a different path. As Albert Einstein wrote, "Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought."
Picasso once said that, "Every child is an artist . . ." I believe that we are all born creative, the problem is being in surroundings that encourages and nurtures that creativity. It isn't until a teacher or parent tells us that we aren't that we begin to doubt ourselves. How often does a parent categorize their children? "Billy is the artist. Sally is the singer." When we put them into boxes, they begin to see themselves as the "reader," or the "dancer," or the "smart one" or the "athlete." Or an art teacher tells a child that what they are drawing is "wrong." Benjamin heard this in elementary school when the art teacher asked them to paint a landscape (that was the only instruction) and he painted a tree purple. I had to try and undo what she said by showing him how different artists saw the world. While creativity is innate in all of us, it must be nurtured to flourish and grow.
The Swiss-German artist Paul Klee once described an artist as being like a tree that draws from the minerals of experience from its roots. The artist does this with things that he or she has observed, read or felt. So how does a child who has nothing to draw from create? Before we adopted Cava, he had not been exposed to different art forms or creating.
One of the ways I am trying to encourage Cava to break out of his right or wrong, black or white approach to creativity is through a technique I learned in art school called blind continuous contour line drawing. Essentially, what I am teaching him to do is to focus only on the object we are drawing (a statue of a little boy holding a rabbit, a statue of a horse, fruit) and draw the outline shapes of the object without looking at his hands or the paper. This is hard for Cava because, as with most of us, we want to look down at what we're drawing and correct the mistakes. Except in this form of drawing there are no mistakes. It is not about drawing the subject so much as capturing shape and form, it develops hand-eye coordination, develops the right-brain in become more observable, and teaches the left-brain side to balance its tendency to simplify and classify things in a stereotypical way.
It is also teaching Cava to not rush through this process but go slowly. To help him not constantly look at his paper, I sometimes have him draw with his eyes closed.
Teaching a child to be creative helps them with their problem solving skills. During the summer, I would take all of our blocks and dump them onto the kitchen floor. Unlike with Legos, there are no instructions with good, old fashioned wooden blocks. Then I would give him a task such as build a city or a castle. At first, Cava just sat there on the floor, unsure of what to do or how to proceed. All of those blocks on the floor were too much.
Seeing his insecurity at being overwhelmed, I suggested he organize the blocks first by shape and then he can see what he had to work with. He brightened up and, once his blocks were organized, he could set to work on the task at hand with some sense of comfort.
"I think my city will need a bridge," he told me and I responded with, "That's an awesome idea! Bridges welcome and invite people to your city." He smiled and set to work immediately. He needs to learn the play that makes up a good portion of creativity. This can also be difficult for a child who did not learn how to play.
First he built a bridge to his city and then he placed the boats on both sides. Then he changed his mind. "In my city," he informed me, "the boats ride on the bridge and the cars drive in the water."
"Wonderful," I told him. "I love your city already!"
He was delighted to hear this and, upon receiving approval, began to construct his city. The center of it would be a pyramid-shaped building that was to be the city's library. How can I not love a kid who makes the library the center of his imagined city?
Cava spent hours imagining his city and then thinking through how he could take the resources he had at hand to build it. This not only was a way to encourage him in believing in his own capabilities but it also strengthens his problem solving skills.
After showing him Matisse's construction paper collages, I gave him construction paper, scissors, and glue and then asked him to create a bird without using a photo. At first Cava balked at this idea and kept telling me, "I can't do it." To break him from this negative train of thought, I, first, calmed him down and then asked him to close his eyes. "Picture a bird in your mind. What color is it?"Once he picked a color, I began to ask him about the shape of the bird, its size, what its beak looked like, and what kind of talons did it have. As he imagined this bird, he began to see it. The bird went from something abstract (which he struggles with) to something concrete. After he described his bird, he then had enough confidence to sit at the table and create his bird.
German social psychologist Eric Fromm wrote, "Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties." This is part o what I am having to teach Cava. I want him to be able to express himself, his thoughts, his feelings in a creative and constructive way. The more ways that are open to him, the more he will be at ease with who he is. He needs to learn that it's okay to make mistakes, that there are no wrong ways to art. The more he works at this the stronger his cognitive abilities will be.
Cava never had the unstructured playtime that most children get. He didn't receive the time or tools to explore his creativity which help build up a child's ego, allow for independent thought, and be able to cope with different challenges. I want him to see possibilities. I want his world to expand and for him to believe that he is up to whatever task is before him. I want him to silence that inner critic that is so often the barrier to a person's creativity. It is critical to foster this in him to build his self-esteem so that he can explore new and unfamiliar areas without fear of being wrong or messing up or making mistakes.
Ray Bradbury said, "Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious. and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things. You simply must do things."
I agree and that's what I want Cava to be able to do. He over thinks and worries about everything and, I'm hoping, that by reassuring him and encouraging him now, he will become inspired and unafraid to try new things, think new thoughts and not be afraid of being unconventional. He spent the informative years of his life being told he was stupid and I am working to break this by rewarding and allowing him ways of self-expression and letting him know that they are things of beauty, great worth, and rich value because only he could have made them. Creativity is part of that path to wholeness, which is what I want most for him.