Saturday, April 11, 2009

Creativity and the child in all of us

You can be champion of the world too.

While I was loafing around Livingstone the other day, I did a little window shopping at a fancy pants bookstore. One particular book caught my eye, and I couldn’t not buy it – Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl.

Truth be told, I couldn’t actually remember what the story was about, but I knew exactly how it made me feel when Mrs. Holmes read it to my class back in grade 3. It sparkled. It was inspiring.

So I took the book back home with me and began to savour it, reading no more than two chapters each day, letting the story envelope me like it did when I was a child. The story has not lost its ability to capture my imagination, but I noticed something else this time.

There are a lot of implicit messages embedded in this story, great messages for children. The importance of play and creativity, the influence of role models, and, most obviously, the potential for every person to achieve great things.

My childhood was filled with these and other such inspiring messages. They came from a handful of great teachers, my amazing parents, and other encouraging people from my home community.

I consider myself very lucky to have grown up in an environment that allowed me to live by those messages, that I had the opportunities to take them and put them into action. I am the person I am today because of all that. Unfortunately, though, not every child is lucky enough to have that, not in Zambia, not even in Canada.

“Creativity is as important in education as literacy.”

This is what Sir Ken Robinson contends in his TED talk: Do schools kills creativity? He calls creativity “the process of having original ideas that have value”, and he says education systems the world over squander the creativity of children. It’s a compelling (and very entertaining) argument, and I encourage you all the watch it.

I’ve met a lot of extraordinary people in Zambia who astound me with their creativity. Now, I admit to not being an aficionado on education in Zambia, but I do know that it is plagued with problems, from a serious lack of resources to archaic methods and curricula to very few post high-school opportunities. But despite a seeming disabling environment for creativity, some people have managed to thrive. Why?

My informal and statistically unsound investigation tells me that role models are very important, especially familial ones. Bedford, a driver, revealed that he enjoys writing poetry in his spare time. When I asked how he discovered this talent, he said it was encouraged by his aunt. George, my unbelievably entertaining story-telling friend, told me he was influenced by his uncle and older sister. Mr. Hamoonga, who built the only sunken living room I’ve ever seen in rural Zambia, said he was inspired by his father’s creative architectural tendencies (pic pending).

However, even the most inspired person can be discouraged if there is a lack of opportunities to exercise creativity. Chimwemwe, a bright, young, passionate guy who studied international business in South Africa told me that he’d love to try some new ideas out if viable business opportunities were available. What’s worse is that creativity can be equated with deviance in a fairly homogenous society, so new ideas can be stigmatized as just plain weird. “Ah, they just make you feel bad when you try something new” he lamented.

Going to the creativity gym.

In the world of international development, and actually, in the world in general right now, there is a lot of talk about the need for creative solutions to address the complex conditions of the present and the uncertain ones of the future. I tend to agree with this, but are we setting our children up to meet this challenge? What about adults: Can the creative child in each of us be unleashed?

I’m not suggesting we send crates of Roald Dahl books to Zambia to solve this problem. Lack of resources is only one of many problems. Lack of role models in a country where 1 in 6 people are HIV positive and life expectancy is less than 40 is another. The lack of opportunities can be incredibly disheartening.

Or maybe…

Maybe I’m not exercising that part of my brain that is able to see possibility instead of pitfalls. As I grow older, I’m finding it important to make the space to play, to use different parts of my brain. I write often (and now I read children’s books). I play sport when I can, and I’ve been dancing a lot lately (I may or may not be in a Zambian music video!). I prioritize play, be it physical, intellectual, or emotional. Play is fun. It is also a precursor for creativity.

What are your creative outlets? How do you exercise your creativity? I’d love to hear it.

In the meantime, here’s a message from Roald Dahl (the emphasis is his):

When you grow up
and have children of your own
do please remember
something important

a stodgy parent is no fun at all

What a child wants
and deserves
is a parent who is