Words: Laura Alvarado
Image: Lynnie Zulu
Pack up your home, take your kids out of school and head to your nearest airport with the aim of traveling for as long as you can… For many of us, that is the dream, right? I love reading about families who embark on round-the-world voyages, collecting shells from every beach they walk barefoot upon and tasting flavours from new kitchens. But, what is it about travelling that inspires us as parents so much? Apart from the obvious joys of reaching new lands and being unleashed from the daily grind of drop-offs, work and washing, there are some key factors that converge, once detached from our regular routines, which allow adults and children to be able to fully engage with their sense of play and exploration.
From thinking about escaping the 9 to 5, we can start to recognise what is lacking or missing from our everyday lives. In my work, and also in my personal life, I am a problem solver. I get asked by many parents, “How can I help my child to be more expressive?” or “What can I do at home to help the kids be more creative?”. To answer this, I research and study what is happening when our children feel at their best. In our modern, fast-paced world, this is usually when we are on holiday.
Future generations will look back at this period of history and recognise that many parents never take their children off the Achievement Treadmill. Recently, I had a very lovely lady call me, who clearly adored her family, but needed advice because her 8-year-old daughter is suffering with physical symptoms of stress and anxiety.
After ruling out problems at home and complications during pregnancy, I began to ask her about her school life and the after school routine. My questions were answered with a list of clubs and classes that occurred six out of seven days of the week. This young girl had almost every day packed with a commitment to performing and/or practising something that was goal-orientated. So I asked her mother, does she do anything just for fun, with no expectations?
There is so much performance-related pressure at school – as parents and carers, we need to counterbalance this. This means rest and being outdoors or at home with time to potter around
When I ask about expectations, I do not just mean from parents because children can be very tough on themselves, even when parents aren’t putting any pressure on. What I wanted to know was whether there was an activity that she was involved in that didn’t have a level to achieve, a badge to earn, a gold star to claim or a certificate to frame? The answer was no. This girl’s life and routine is in no way abnormal to the many children I work with.
The first step towards nurturing creativity is to cut back on scheduled activity that involve goals. I am in regular conversation with many teachers and head-teachers from primary and secondary schools in and around London. They are all saying the same message: schools have changed so much, the pressure is on in terms of performance-related management and this results in children being regularly assessed from as young as six or sevens years old. Schools are not the same as they were, even compared to just five years ago. Some people choose to home-school or send their kids to private schools where this incessant testing is kept out, but for the majority, schools are rushing and pushing our kids to new limits.
As parents and carers, we need to counterbalance this. This means rest and being outdoors or at home with time to potter around.
So, once we’ve adjusted our children’s daily lives and stopped making them hurry from place to place, what do we do? We can gently, and in our own way, begin to regularly bring The New into our children’s lives. This can be done through visits to natural sites, museums, galleries, artists’ open studios, sculpture parks, travelling, walks through the city – taking unfamiliar routes. This practice is about the child as the observer, the witness. Filling the well of their right brain with new visions, sounds, tastes, scents and feelings. When parents find that their children have lost or lack their motivation to write creatively, I often encourage the family to go on a weekend visit to a theatre show and to go for a long walk along somewhere like the Southbank. I feel that walking through somewhere vibrant creates a narrative in the very doing of the act.
The next step on from a change of scenery is to experiment with materials and processes. This needs to be tailored to your child’s age and ability. It is wonderful to give you child a disposable camera and let them snap away as you walk through the high street. It is a magical process for a child to then have his photograph be developed. Another simple activity is to give them a cloth bag and walk through a natural setting, allowing them to collect leaves, stones and any other treasure they may come across. The main idea here is to play about with ways that your child can interact with the world around them. In better weather, outdoor painting sessions are wonderful ways to develop a strong sense of colour, begin to think about perspective and form, being able to problem solve and the ability to learn.
The beauty of creative play as opposed to formal instruction is that it is developing the ability to be independent in both cognitive and emotional functions
Following their bliss
Being creative does not need to come in the form of painting and drawing. As a child, I felt bound in by the school art classes, where you were awarded if you could ‘colour in beautifully’ or draw an object realistically. It makes me sad when I hear children utter the phrase, “I’m not very good at art”. There are so many ways of creating, and visual art and being a good draftsmen are just a slither of the possible ways to express oneself. Find what makes your child tick, try not to judge their passion, whether it be doodling, cooking, building towers out of found objects. It is possible to steer their play by introducing different materials however it is vital to step back and allow the child to come to you. At times, children will require more input from the parent or carer, but the beauty of creative play as opposed to formal instruction is that it is developing the ability to be independent in both cognitive and emotional functions.
Witnessing not measuring
This relates back to the idea of removing goals and levels. It is not our job to continually praise or assess our offspring’s efforts. Often, they just want to be seen. Instead of saying, “Charlie, this is an excellent painting” replace with something like, “These colours remind me of…” or “Your painting makes me want to paint as well”. Offer something personal and authentic. At first, it may feel false, but with time it may become a more collaborative way to share in the creations made by your loved ones. If all we give is praise, that will condition children to base their sense of worth on achievement and fundamentally on something external to their being.
Let’s channel the openness and sense of exploration we gain whilst traveling into our daily lives, and allow our children the space and freedom to play in and re-imagine the world around us.