7 things you can learn about creativity from an almost-three-year-old

A boy, sandox and a shovel

note: this post is reprinted from my previous blog, Cliffjump!

I spend a lot of time with my little boy. He’s pretty great, and everyone tells us he’s their favorite toddler (obviously he’s ours), but I’m pretty sure he’s exactly as special as every other almost-three-year old, which is to say amazingly, unimaginably special. I figure he probably does much the same stuff they all do. Which is to say, he plays. And I play with him, as often as I can between the dishes and the laundry and such. I also watch… and learn. Here are a few pearls of wisdom I’ve distilled from observing (usually in jealous awe) his effortless, totally un-self-conscious creative play.

1. It’s all about playing.

Here’s an observation: kids do not have to have the concept of ‘play’ explained to them. They know it inherently. It is their natural state, what they want to do all the time. Nobody has to tell them how to do it or why they should want to. A toddler’s ‘imagination’ switch is always on. What if it were like that for us? What if creativity were not ‘work’, not ‘business’, not something that we could only do when ‘inspiration’ struck. What if it were always on? Why isn’t it? Who starts turning it off? Why?

2. Pour the blocks out on the floor and get into it.

OK. You want to play? Play! What’s with all the setup? You need a couple of toys, or failing that a spoon or used subway ticket or something (see point #4) and your imagination. Which, as per point #1, is always on. So dump the blocks out on the floor and start putting one on top of the other! Who cares what it’s going to be? Who cares if someone else is going to like it? Those things do not enter the mind of a toddler. Why are we obsessed with them?

3. Watch what your heroes do, and imitate them!

For us, our relationship with our kids is somewhat abstract. I mean, we love them totally, in ways that are literally incomprehensible to the non-parental mind, but in an abstract sense we know that if they were different kids, switched at birth without our knowledge, we would love them just as much. Our kids do not know this. We are the center of the universe for them, life without us is not something they contemplate. We are their heroes and they are hard-wired to want to do every single thing that we do. We cook, they want to cook (they even want to cook all the same things). We run marathons, they want to run marathons.

Since they can’t do either of those things ‘really’, they pretend to do them. They do know the difference, if you press them, but it doesn’t seem important. What’s important is that they are doing what their heroes do, and riffing on it, putting their own spin on it. Taking it apart and recombining it. That’s exactly what artists do, but the difference is that toddlers don’t agonize over it or try to hide it in an attempt to appear completely original. They just do it. It’s no big deal.

4. Anything can be anything (or anyone) else.

My son loves his aunt, who was a big part of his early life, but she now lives far away. Many games involve pretending she is here, driving cars with him, cooking eggs with him (see point #3). When he needs to represent her in some scenario he’s building, he will literally grab any item within reach – a hairpin, a piece of lint – and declare it to be Katie. And then he will proceed to play with her, for hours, carrying her all over the apartment with him, showing her things, explaining them to her. Giving her rides on toy trains, feeding her imaginary noodles, whatever. This works for things as well, of course. He will often simply declare an object to be some other thing that he is thinking about at that particular moment, and get on with the fun. Interact with it as if it were that thing. Sometimes it’s quite humorous… and as a bonus, you start to understand something about Dali.

5. It’s twice as fun when someone else plays along…

Of course, when he can get one he’s happy to have a playmate – OK, sometimes he can be quite insistent about it. He does want validation, collaboration, appreciation, all that good stuff that we want, but not in the same desperate way. He wants to share his imaginary cake with me, and beams with pleasure when I take the bites he offers and smack my lips with enjoyment. If he’s building a tower, he is definitely going to want someone to help with the heavy lifting – as long as he gets to be the foreman.

6… even if that person is imaginary

But if I can’t come at that instant, any of his ‘friends’ will do. They’re quiet, being stuffed and all, but he does enough talking for everyone, keeps the important players in the loop. If I’m not available to share the cake with, the Polar Bear is usually happy to step up and dig in (or failing that, a beloved relative disguised as a pen cap)… As a performing musician, I think that rehearsing with an imaginary audience helps me keep stagefright at bay. Actually, to be honest, it’s never been much of a problem for me, but then I have been doing the imagined-audience thing for a long time, so I guess it works. And I guess Alexis also comes by it honestly…

7. Once you get started you don’t want to stop

When deep in the flow of a particular game, he is capable of putting up incredible resistance to getting ready to go out, or to bed, or whatever. Of course there are various ways to read this, but one factor is that he’s honestly not finished what he’s doing, even if we can’t quite see what’s happening or why it would be important to finish. It is definitely important to him, and the distraction is not welcome – play (creativity) is priority number one for him at that moment, and we are clearly not respecting that with our timetables and agendas. I aspire to that kind of singleminded creative focus, but circumstances usually conspire against it. This post took me a week to get around to and two sessions over two days to finish!

So there you have it. Creativity as seen by someone who doesn’t know the word yet… who hasn’t, in other words, built up complicated anxieties about it, made excuses to put it off, set boundaries and limitations around it, or generally made it harder and scarier than it needs to be. I wonder how long we can keep him in this blissful state? Will he have to go through all of that crap and then spend years trying to unlearn and find his way back out of it, like everyone else? Only time will tell… meanwhile, he is certainly helping to keep things in perspective for me!

What experiences with early childhood creativity can you think of? Do you think there are lessons you can learn from them now?