The Creative Child
When YB (short for ‘Yakuza Baby’, my daughter’s nickname) was in first grade, she came home crying one day, because all through her school day, she had been dreaming up an experiment to turn the dried leaves she had collected in the playground blue.
But, she sobbed, she had a ton of homework, and after homework, she had to have dinner, and after dinner, she didn’t have much time before bed to do much of anything. There was simply no time to dye her dried leaves blue.
I was struck by how sad she was, and also how sad it was that a 6-year-old should feel her existence was an unending train of drudgery which left her no time to pursue the experiments in her mind.
It was a pivotal moment for me. Many people would, quite understandably, dismiss her “experiments” as less important than all the schoolwork, and that learning to put aside childish wants is a key part of growing up. But I could not help feeling, “If she doesn’t get a chance to explore her whims at 6, then when will she?” Are the fancies in our head doomed to eternal postponement and relegation?
I made the decision to tell her teacher that I would limit her homework time to only an hour a day, so that she could have some unstructured play time. I was determined to protect her creative time. Some might say that was being too indulgent, but I think that move has really paid off.
YB is now in seventh grade and she just made this amazing piece of animation below in collaboration with her very creative history teacher, Naden Rowe, and his daughter.
Every one of her teachers has remarked to me what a creative child she is. And I have never sent her for any ‘creative’ classes. She has independently picked up ukelele-playing, sewing and animation—skills neither my husband nor I possess.
She just says, “I have an idea” and then finds ways to acquire the skills she needs to complete the idea on her own or in collaboration with others. And why she is this way has everything to do with that decision to protect her free time, i.e. the time where she is free to think and create.
This is the story of how I raised a creative child. I will refer quite a bit to the writings of John Dewey, the father of progressive education, as his thinking has influenced my thinking as a teacher and parent quite profoundly.
#1 Ingredient for Raising a Creative Child: Letting Go
When YB was very little, I noticed that whenever I stopped trying to direct her play in the playground (“Try the swing! Doesn’t it look like fun!” or “Why not try the slide? It’s not scary!”), she would always end up at the monkey bars.
At first she was trying to just hang on the bar. And then one day, she suddenly screamed with surprise as she found she could move from one bar to the next. Soon, she was skipping bars, going backwards, going sideways, swinging off handles that seemed too high up for her, and just doing stuff that I was too terrified to watch. Of course, she often fell and also failed, but she worked hard at it, on her own, repeatedly, in order to achieve goals that she had set for herself.
Every now and then I would hear, “Mommy, help!” or “Mommy, look!” And I would look and realize that she had learned a new trick. She was blissful when she was on the monkey bars. And my contribution was simply to make sure that she had time on the playground every day, and whenever she wanted to show me a new trick, I would ask her to tell me more about how she did it. And I might try it too (and fail miserably, of course).
Why was Yakuza Baby so willing to put in the hard work at the monkey bars?
John Dewey (1938) talks about how children’s “curiosity”, and their own “desires and purposes” can ignite enough fire to carry them through the hard work of learning. As a mom and teacher, what I have learned is to watch and observe the firing up of curiosity—and then fuel that curiosity with time, tools, and social interaction.
What started with the monkey bars has translated into Yakuza Baby understanding the process of learning, and being quite unafraid to “not know” something—because she herself knows how to go from “not knowing” to “knowing” independently. This is an essential journey for the creative child.
#2 Ingredient for Raising a Creative Child: Unstructured Play Time
Ever since Yakuza Baby begged for time when she was in the first grade, I have been much more conscious of protecting the time that she needs to get into a state of “flow”.
In his research on creative people, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi found that for artists and creators to do their best work, they enter a state of “flow”. This is the state of engrossed work that makes one forget time and space. The hard work, in a sense, becomes effortless. We experience a sense of purpose, direction, achievement and focus when in “flow”, which some people call the “zone”.
Jill Suttie, in writing about how schools foster flow in students, talks about how some schools find ways where kids can define their own purposes and ask their own questions, allowing students to choose their own activities and take tests at their own pace. These strategies provide some direction, but also enough freedom and autonomy to get into a state of flow in order to give space for the growth of the creative child.
In reflecting on my own parenting, one of the more unusual things that I’ve done is to make sure she has a lot of time to play and to work on her own projects.
When she was younger, “playing” often looked like playground, doll, and role-play time. And I allocated a nook in the apartment that became her workshop. This space had glue, scissors, remnant cloth, sticks, cardboard that she collected. This is where she would create apartments, rooms, furniture, and even a jail for her doll!
Now that she’s entering her teen years, play looks more like collaborative writing, creating songs and making comics. These are all activities that are done over long stretches of time with little structure and supervision.
Wharton Professor and organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, in researching non-conformists, found that children whose birth order come later are often the ones who are more likely to be non-conformists – because the parents usually get too tired to structure and supervise too much and these kids have much more “autonomy”. These original thinkers have been parented more by principles and less by very detailed and strict rules.
But whenever I decline to follow the schedules that our friends are planning for their children, I often find myself wondering if I have chosen to parent correctly. Should I, as a responsible parent, be packing her weekends with piano, swimming, golf and coding, instead of letting her create dollhouses out of empty tissue boxes or make videos with her friends? Are these a waste of time?
#3 Ingredient for Raising a Creative Child: Inspiring Communities
What I noticed about Yakuza Baby’s playtime is that it is a time of trying out new ideas that she’s picked up.
One day, I eavesdropped on her playing dolls with her Taiwanese friend, and she was playing completely in Mandarin, testing out new vocabulary she had learned through the voice of a character that she had created.
Recently, I read a story that she was co-writing with a friend, and I noticed that she had inserted many of our experiences together into the story. For example, I would often sing a lullaby with the wrong lyrics and she added that as a quirk for a mom character in her story.
Playing and creating is the space where she tests out new knowledge and mixes and matches old knowledge in new contexts—making it her own. Play is actually serious work!
I have started sending her to “classes”—of a sort.
Her elementary school teacher in Taiwan asked me for a meeting one day to discuss how I was encouraging her art development. I thought he was going to ask me to send her to classes. But instead, he said, “Can you make sure you don’t send her to art classes?”
I was surprised. He explained that he meant the kind of classes that just focus on completing a project so that kids have a product to take home and show the parents, and are not focused on experimentation, enjoyment or the creative process.
When I look back at the experiences and the types of “classes” that have been instrumental in getting Yakuza Baby to create, those were occasions where she met inspiring people who are great teachers and practitioners.
For example, when we were living in New York City, we decided not to send her for typical music classes. Our friend, Joan Chew, (an amazing musician who plays with several bands including Lez Zeppelin, an all-female Led Zeppelin tribute band) had the idea to expose Yakuza Baby to different instruments and learn to play the drums and bass to Queen and the Ramones. Joan also got YB to start composing with a few chords, so that music felt like a tool for creation and not just memorization or repetitive practice.
When we moved to Taiwan, YB picked up the ukelele all by herself, and through her international school’s ukulele club, started jamming with two of her teachers. They would share songs with each other and they got her to perform in cafes with other players of all ages. This provided the context to help her enjoy music as a social experience.
Similarly, we used to take her to the Second Saturdays Reading Series, a gathering of mainly Southeast Asian writers in New York who would read from their work at various stages of creation. This helped her see writing and reading works-in-progress to peers as a daily practice, and eventually, she felt emboldened to read one of her own works too!
She also got massively inspired by the cosplayers at New York Comic Con (our family has also often all dressed up together in home-made costumes at Halloween) which led her to start sewing her own costumes. She now has her own sewing machine and for some reason, has become very interested in recreating period English and American ladieswear, from corsets to bonnets, from discarded bedlinen or fabrics.
This ‘creative recycling’ habit came from Mr. Lee, her form teacher in her Taiwanese school, who always had buckets of materials in the classroom for the kids to pull and make stuff, reinforcing the idea that creating can be casual and something that happens every day.
Lately, she has taken an interest in performance—not just being on-stage, but the minutiae of the craft of evoking emotion. This came from an unscheduled chat with a dear friend, the multiple award-winning actress Yeo Yann Yann, who started telling YB about the differences between “Surface Acting” and “Deep Acting”. That interaction really opened her eyes, and since then, she watches performances differently, analyzing actors’ performances, and now even lighting and set design.
We have been extremely privileged to have friends who are also great teachers and creators to provide “classes” that spark journeys of discovery and experimentation.
I know that not everyone has the same access, but we can think differently of “classes” and also when to get our kids into classes.
The entire point of classes for kids at a certain age is really exposure. But too often, we decide on a class for the children and then feel compelled to force them to stick with it. We know too many friends who had significant musical achievement as children to please their parents, only to never touch the instrument again.
Perhaps a more fruitful (and less stressful) strategy would be to take kids to see, e.g. rock-climbing, or music performances or art, etc, to see if they get to the point of saying, “Oh I want to do that” first, BEFORE enrolling them.
If our kids can see the purpose and the goal, and then decide that they want that goal, then we can search for experiences and classes by people who can inspire them. In this way, learning becomes more effective and sustainable.
In the past, I have found that if I enrol Yakuza Baby into classes in which she is miserable, it’s as painful for me as it is for her.
I recently asked Yakuza Baby when classes might make sense, and she had a good recommendation. She said that there are times when she’s working on a project and needs specific skills to complete it, and that would be a great time to have a class. That way, she would be much more motivated to stick with the class.
In his research on original thinkers, Adam Grant concluded that “if we want to encourage originality, the best step we can take is to raise our children’s aspirations by introducing them to different kinds of role models”. I didn’t think of it too consciously before, but inspirational interactions have worked best to motivate her to seek out the specific and technical skills on her own. And these are also the kinds of experiences that have made her feel like she is part of the creative community.
"I Have an Idea!"
Yakuza Baby is not the fastest runner, the top math student, or a Carnegie Hall playing pianist, but she regularly tells me, with twinkle in her eye, and a mischievous smile, “I have an idea!” And that tells me that she has a pretty good chance of becoming that original thinker who’s not a mere spectator to life, but someone who will shape her own world.
Dr. Yen Yen Woo works on educating for a multicultural and multilingual world through popular culture. She most recently co-created the Dim Sum Warriors app, characters and stories for Bilingual Learning. She has a Doctorate in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and has been a tenured professor of education. She is also an award-winning film director and screenwriter. Her works have been licensed by HBO and Netflix and featured on BBC, Fast Company, Wired, and other global publications. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.