Play is Fun and Powerful

The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, and the Toy Association  collaborated to host a Genius of Play event at the Smithsonian on April 25th. I had the distinct joy of being asked to be one of the panelists! Of course, I accepted.

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The panelists included:

Vikas Gupta — Co-founder and CEO of Wonder Workshop, and maker of the award-winning Dash, Dot and Cue robots. James McLurkin —  Inventor and Senior Hardware Engineer at Google. Jeri Robinson — Vice President of Early Childhood Initiatives at the Boston Children’s Museum. And, Me, Molly James — Creativity Researcher, and Kindergarten Teacher at Kent Place School.

Our conversation on the panel centered on play and its place in learning and schools, creativity, and innovation.

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Have you ever considered how you would define play?

I am always thinking about play and creativity, but for the weeks preceding the panel, I did so with increased attention. I observed my students, and noticed all the remarkable insights, skills, discoveries, and joys they experienced as they played. I read articles, thought, and chatted with fellow creatives.

At times, as if it were to keep my head from exploding, I would have to write. I would write streams of consciousness, questions, wonderings, ideas, and things to look up. With those thoughts safely recorded in my notebook, my brain seemed free for new ideas and questions. This continued for many cycles.. Then, on the train to DC, and at breakfast the morning of the event, several things became crystal clear.

As I rode the train, I wondered how I would succinctly express my ideas. I could talk about play and creativity forever, but how could I do it as part of a panel, in a few sound bites? I decided to see what the dictionary had to say about  play.

I was shocked. I hadn’t read the definitions previously because I didn’t want to risk plagiarizing any of their ideas. I wanted my definition to be my own — from my own experience and research as an educator, and a person who plays. After reading the definitions, I realized there was no chance I’d be stealing their words.

The definitions I found were remarkably different from mine. They made play sound frivolous, purposeless, and unimportant. Nothing was further from what I believe to be the truth.

With these definitions as the way play is explained and understood, it’s no wonder it’s sometimes difficult to convince others of the significance of play in life, learning, creativity, and innovation. I would LOVE the dictionaries to have a definition of play that more correctly explains its essence, and highlights its importance. I wonder how one goes about getting a definition in the dictionary changed?

While perhaps not short enough for an entry in Merriam Webster, or dictionary.com, here is what I consider a much more accurate and appropriate definition of play.

Play is a fun and powerful way of interacting with the world — with people, things, thoughts, and ideas. The fun of play is a large part of its power. When we play we laugh, we let go of worry, we fret less, and we breathe more.  This helps our brains — regardless of our ages or tasks — be more open and able to explore possibilities, entertain new ideas, and learn. When we play we are so much more willing to take risks — and even when we fail, we discover that failure isn’t the end, instead it’s the opportunity to begin the game again — stronger and smarter!

I was not alone in that understanding. All the panelists shared experiences and beliefs in the importance and power of play for all ages — at home, work, and school. It was great to hear such a unified message from a panel of people with very different backgrounds and occupations.

There were so many other great thoughts and ideas presented and discussed about the importance of play. When the video is posted on the Smithsonian page I will blog again and link to it.

The whole event  — arriving early and chatting with Jeri; meeting Monica, James, and Vikas; laughing and sharing our hopes to “not sound like idiots”; the receptions; and the panel itself — was spectacular. There was a ton of brilliance, thinking, collaboration, humility, awesomeness, laughter, honesty, passion, and playfulness on that stage.

Being part of this panel for the  Innovative Lives Series helped me to more fully embrace my expertise and fantabulousness! I presented with the big boys and girls, and in the process, I discovered, I am one of them!

 




Post script:

May 2014 I earned my MA Creative Thinking. A little over a year later, I had this blog, and a published paper. Four years later, an invitation to the Smithsonian.

Wow!

Gotta give a huge shout out to Karl K. Jeffries and his program at UCLan!  You, Karl, are a spectacular mentor, and creative thinker. And, a huge thank you to the many others who walk this creative, playful, fantabulous journey with me. I’m incredibly grateful!

 

 

 

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Creative Arts and the Art of Creativity

Amazing how much past learning, reading and conversation is coming to mind and  informing this post.  Thinking of a title for the post I considered Creative Arts or the Art of Creativity. Almost immediately, Uri Alon’s TEDtalk, and his use of the phrase “Yes, and …” popped into my mind. Nope, can’t be or, must be and. Hence the blog post title —  Creative Arts and the Art of Creativity. Both are valuable and important, and I don’t want to suggest anything different in my title.

Will Burns wrote an article entitled Should Education Focus Less on the Creative Arts, More on the Art of Creativity? I loved his conversation with his son about creativity.

Just this morning I asked my son who just graduated high school to name the most creative person in his class and why he thought so. He thought about it and said, “I think it would be Cassidy Davis (changed name) because she is incredibly good at drawing people’s faces.” My son seemed to equate “creativity” with a talent. But, interestingly, he went on to say, “Yeah, she does these drawings of people but then puts them into these scenes that are totally trippy and surreal.” (Will Burns, Forbes, August 7, 2017 @ 01:26 PM)

Burns exclaimed “Now that is creativity.”

I chuckled when I read that. I agree, that does sound creative. Cassidy moved beyond her talent to produce “good drawings” and interjected some creativity — placing the expertly drawn faces in fantastical scenes, created in her imagination and translated onto the page through her fingers.

Considering the definition of creativity, and whether or not something was creative, brings me back to the many awesome conversations with Karl during and after my MA Creative Thinking work at UCLan.

What exactly is creativity? Is it the same as talent? Is it connected to talent? Can we teach it? How? (And, a zillion other questions.) For now, the important conversation centers on the definition of creativity.

Creativity is new and useful or appropriate. So yes, when I read Burn’s son’s description I thought “Wow, that sounds creative, and quite cool.” But, if Cassidy’s drawings were not appropriate to the task at hand, they would not be creative. Talented and unique, perhaps, but not creative. Interesting, right?

I thought of this the other day as I did some plein air painting in the Adirondacks.

After hiking in, I settled myself, and my watercolors, on rocks in the river. I love this spot on the Ausable River, and I wanted to enjoy the river, the air and the moment. My artistic/creative goal was to capture the movement and spirit of the water, while incorporating a bit of the color mixing I had done at home.

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As I sat — breathing and thinking in this great space — I was splashed repeatedly by the river as it flowed by me. Through those splashes, I felt the river asking for my attention, gently nudging me to capture its essence by actually using it in my painting.

I put aside my waterbrush and began gathering water from the river. Slowly, splashes, drips, and then rivers of water, formed on my paper. Grabbing my brush, I wet my paints with the river water. The many colors of nature began to form on the page as the paints moved through the water. Sometimes they glided past one another without mixing, and other times they crashed into one another, swirling into ribbons and pools of new colors.

It was a fascinating and enjoyable process. I noticed the many things I could, and could not control in the process. Much like I must do when walking on the river, I accepted and relaxed – respecting the power but not fearing it.

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I am not sure anyone would consider me a great watercolor talent after seeing this painting. I am growing in my knowledge, skill, understanding and talent. But, a great talent? Not yet.

But, is it creative? Yes — it is a new idea that is appropriate to my task and goal.

I wasn’t sure I had achieved the essence of the river until I tried to photograph the painting. It looked best when it sat amidst the rocks. Just like the water around it, it gathered strength, grace, beauty and meaning from the rocks.

Back to one of my original questions. Is creativity the same as talent? No.

Is it then, completely different, completely removed from creativity? Again, no.

Thesaurus.com includes ability as a synonym for talent. They define it as “natural or acquired power” in something.

I am, for the first time, having this insight about talent and creativity. Perhaps talent and creativity are related just the way talent and playing the piano, talent and doing math, or talent and fencing are related. As my skills grow, my talent grows. As my understanding grows, my talent grows. As I practice, try, fail, learn, succeed — my talent grows. The talent can be in relationship to a plethora of different things — including creativity.

And, as my creativity grows – as a thinker in general, or in a specific arena – my talent, so to speak, always grows. Think of jazz musicians, scientists developing life saving drugs, mathematicians proposing or solving incredible problems, poets writing exquisite poems — their talent feeds their creativity, which in turn feeds their talent! It is a beautiful feedback loop.

Neither talent nor creativity are fixed abilities. We all have the ability to be talented and creative. Some may be more innately talented or creative, and levels of talent and creativity vary.  But, and this is an incredibly important thing for everyone — perhaps especially, parents, teachers and young people — to hear, with learning and practice, everyone can grow in talent and creativity.

This leads me back to Mr. Burn’s article Should Education Focus Less on the Creative Arts, More on the Art of Creativity?  and back to my “Yes, and …” from the beginning of this post. I love Burn’s thoughts in his article about the importance of creativity, and of a teacher with an MA Creative Thinking to help others navigate. However, I lean towards Uri Alon’s idea — Yes, and.

Yes, creative arts, AND, yes, ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY the art of creativity.

I think, perhaps, Mr. Burn’s would agree with that statement. But, that’s for another post!