Thursday, January 29, 2015

Creativity, Play, and Learning

Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.
Some of us might say there’s some relationship between creativity and play…maybe. Stretching a bit, some may say they appreciate play for its role in creativity. Fewer are likely to have considered the possibility that creativity and play are closely related. Mostly we tend to think of creativity and play as worlds apart. 

Play is for younger children; creativity is for adults and older children. Creativity is a charm that unlocks potential; play is for blowing off steam. Creativity is serious business, play is what happens when there’s nothing else to do. Creativity seems mysterious; play is ubiquitous.

Yet, looking at creativity and play more closely and together highlights some important similarities and connections between them as well as to learning. 

Admittedly there are many views of both play and creativity. Furthermore, both concepts are difficult to capture and often assigned overly elastic or simplified meanings. Traditionally creativity has been considered unrestrained, uninhibited, cathartic and emotional; or individual talent and flashes of insight. More recently creativity has been theorized from perspectives of education, sociology, psychology and philosophy. It is viewed as generating something new that has value. Educators in the schools for young children in Reggio (IT) consider creativity as the art of thinking. Then there is one of many recursive five-stage processes. Expansive territory, indeed.
The Inner Circle by Jaime Filipe

No less vague and fraught, play is likewise viewed through multiple lenses of psychology, evolutionary biology, and child development and enjoys many definitions. Complex and ambiguous, play is recreation, the child’s work, and a pleasurable activity carried out for its own sake. Just as there are multistage processes for creativity, there are play taxonomies galore. According to Martin Buber, “Play is the exultation of the possible.”  

The rhetorics of creativity and play mirror one another in significant ways. We see in both, ideas and forms that are consumed with pleasure. In neither is the object, form, or idea accepted as a given. Whether manipulating blocks, making music, designing a new font, or redesigning packaging, we do something to whatever we started with, combining, stretching or somehow up-ending its original form. In play and creativity, we draw on stored information, ideas and skills from accumulated experiences and settings. In both creativity and play, a similar push-and-pull of drives is at work. We make bold connections, are flexible, and find different combinations of ideas on the one hand, and we respond to the drives of conformity, familiarity, and predictability on the other. And although forts, songs, apps, and new food products may result from play and creative activity, neither necessarily produces tangible products.

Creativity In Play
A sense of a more substantial relationship than a list of similarities between creativity and play emerges from recent thinking in cognitive science and neuroscience. It builds, in fact, on Einstein’s idea of creativity as combinatorial play. Versions of this idea have been explored in articles in American Journal of Play as combinational creativity (Boden p. 7) and combinatory play (Stevens. p. 99).

Leaf Bowls by Kay Sekimachi
In combinatory play a person uses conscious, deliberate connection making and imagination, manipulating familiar ideas, images, sounds, or forms and comes up with unlikely combinations of ideas, images, sounds, or forms. Recombined they are novel, surprising and valuable. We may experience this in combining disparate information, repurposing an abundant discard, imagining dried leaves as a bowl or translating a metaphor into an immersive environment. When we do, we play with possible outcomes, adapt to unexpected results, and link what had seemed unlinkable. We envision what is not present, compare and contrast various combinations, fuse and peel apart constructs to arrive at a new whole. The brain plays.

Connecting previously unconnected images, facts, or elements in ways that are new and meaningful occurs through both conscious and unconscious cognitive play. The mind hovers between structure and openness; it wanders between focused attention and diffused attention. It skates freely with and among a series combinations without imposing a conclusion. This is a complex form of play as well as thinking.
Falcon Model made of cardboard boxes

The Brain Plays
Thinking outside the box speaks directly to creativity as well as play. For both, this image celebrates freedom from constraints and attraction to possibilities. Creativity invites us to detour rigid frameworks, assumptions, and rules. By thinking outside the constraints of a cardboard box’s original size, proportions, and purpose, a familiar box is transformed into a child’s boat or spaceship or an animation artist’s detailed scaled model.  

Thinking outside the box also suggests how we might look at the relationship between creativity, play, and learning. Making connections between one thing and another is also fundamental to a conceptualization of learning as a connection-making process. Deliberate and conscious, learning involves connecting formerly isolated concepts, linking abstractions with hands-on concrete application, associating previous experiences with a fact, and reinforcing understanding a concept. In contrast to the fresh, unlikely combinations that characterize creativity and play, learning is concerned with making connections that construct a meaningful system of relationships that changes and grows with experience.

Just as creativity requires sidestepping conventional ways of exploring thought, structure, and objects, letting go of well-used and decidedly separate categories for play, creativity, and learning allows us to see how each helps advance the case for and supports the others.

Judging from the number of articles, reports, blogs, journals, and magazines, there’s no shortage of opinions, advice, and evidence about the importance of creativity and creative development and how to foster it. A valued attribute for 21st century learners, creativity enables us to respond to a rapidly changing world and deal with the unexpected by extending our current knowledge and skills to novel situations and by using it in new ways. For everyone–a parent, barista, software programmer, museum, plumber, accountant, or a child–the day job requires creativity. 

Taking any of these three seriously means taking all seriously. Valuing creativity and learning relies on valuing play (at every age). Providing for one provides well for the others. Expanding experiences and enriching opportunities in one area, fuels the other two. If we want children, youth, and adults; citizens, learners, and workers to be creative, follow different ways of imagining, thinking, linking, exploring and challenging ideas, we need to create the conditions that allow players, connectors, and learners to think artfully, to combine and recombine, connect and reconnect pleasurably even exuberantly.

To do this, we have every reason to be generous with tools, machines, images, designed objects, natural forms, found materials, artifacts, and bio-facts; in maker spaces, studios, discovery rooms, and ateliers; backyards, play yards, and junkyards; experiment stations, kitchens, or labs. Unlikely, intriguing, and fresh combinations will emerge as we hold back on judgment and ease up on the pressure to come to closure. We need to respect the element of time for imagining, drawing on previous experiences, successes and failures; for building and rebuilding representations; and for talking about, working with, reflecting on, and making ideas or connections their own.

  • How do you see the relationship among creativity, play and learning? 
  • How do the connections among them expand your understanding of each?
  • How would you create the conditions in your museum or classroom to invite all three?  
Related Museum Notes Posts

Creative work is play. It is free speculation using the materials of one’s chosen form.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Better Versions of Our Ideas

"Ephemeral Rays" by Charlotte Smith
I have several cherished theories, none of which is based on any shred of evidence. One is that most of us want better versions of the ideas we already have. True, we like what we have come up with, but want an improvement over it. This might pertain to a concept for an exhibition, the title of an article, a vision statement, an idea for a museum initiative, or the theme for a party. We do like our idea and we don’t want to give it up. We just wish it were more, more…provocative, current, simpler, deeper, or perhaps edgier.   

Not surprisingly, I’m ever-so-pleased when I find something I like to think about, write on, or do, that is accomplished in a way I wish I could manage. In the last several days, I have fortuitously come across links to three interesting websites and blogs that illustrate my cherished Better Version theory. While located in my silo and what I write about on Museum Notes, these writings do so with spark and spunk. Of interest to me, it is also a pleasure to share them with others interested in stretching their thinking and deepening their insights.

But will you be here?  An argument for tours that encourage life-long museum going by Jackie Delamatre on Rebecca Herz’s Museum Questions

Rebecca Herz has been hosting a series of guest posts on museums and schools; all have been very good. In this one, her guest Jackie Delamatre challenges some basic assumptions about school tours in museums. Now an educator at the RISD Museum (Providence), her provocative questions are based on observations of students in tours she has lead at the Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art. I think Jackie is able to highlight where museums limit themselves in imagining what tours (and other programs) might be by replicating the teacher-directed approach of classrooms in informal learning institutions; placing curricular connections high on the list of goals for school visits; and structuring space and lessons that answer questions we hope students also have. What if, Jackie wonders, the primary goal of a museum visit were to foster an understanding of, appreciation for, and techniques for being future visitors in a museum? This question opens inviting new territory for museum educators to explore ways in which learners might direct their own learning, explore what interests and motivates them, and allows them to explore their thinking and ideas. 
Related Museum Notes Posts


The Happy Museum

How can an idea like a Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI) not get one’s attention? I came across that and a link to the Happy Museum project in this week’s Center for the Future of Museums' blog post, Lost Pleasures. The Happy Museum Project (HMP) in the UK is concerned with enlarging the idea of community–in time, space, and participants–well beyond what museum aspirations and planning typically embrace. With a determination we seldom see among museums, HMP pursues a museum’s role as a steward of people, place and community. An appetite for roomy ideas connects well-being and environmental sustainability. Well-being is supported by the restorative benefits of museum visits, resilience, and community and museum synergies that include resources like outdoor space. Reimagining museums’ role in increasing community vitality involves civic engagement with a mutuality among museums, visitors, and citizens. HMP clearly favors a museum’s measuring (and doing) what matters over easy-to-quantify financial and resource measures. Its experimental mindset (it describes its efforts as “a creative enquiry”) is also expressed in commissioning projects and conducting action research. More expansive than what most museums are likely to consider, HMP is a friendly provocation to museums to stretch their vision, challenge their assumptions, and activate their community relationships.  
Related Museum Notes Posts


Department of Play

A Boston-based collective, Department of Play’s mission is to bring a spirit of empathy and wonder to public life through immersive, irresistible, and aesthetically appealing collective experiences in public space. In staging temporary play zones at familiar and unmemorable locations across Boston, Department of Play is not just for or about children. It does use play as a collaborative endeavor capable of shaping and transforming public space, increasing social exchange, and impacting quality of life. Department of Play seems to be the kind of partner museums can work with and learn from as they envision the positive change possible for their community and engage members of the community in realizing it. This is also an organization that serves a wide audience, has a strong sense of what it is about, and expresses it playfully in small (hello[at]deptofplay[dot]com) and large ways; activities are designed with research in mind.
Related Museum Notes Posts

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Thoughts on Writing a Blog

The year-end blog post, “What You Lose When You Become Embedded and a Moment of Mourning for Blog Conversations” on Nina Simon’s Museum2.0 blog was thoughtful and provocative as usual. Nina shared what has interested her about blogging and is currently happening. Blogging has served as a way to learn twice: first by writing, then by engaging with commenters. While her readers have increased, comments and conversations have decreased. Nina’s readers do engage with her posts, but often elsewhere with others. I contribute to this: I read regularly, comment sometimes, and occasionally work threads from her posts in my writing. Consequently, this very prolific and generous blogger has become less part of the lively exchanges she has created and looked forward to writing. Her post, coincidentally, seems to have prompted more comments than usual.  

Entering my fifth blogging year and mindful of Nina’s post, I’ve been reflecting on my reasons for writing Museum Notes which cluster into two areas. I blog to stretch my thinking and be helpful to museums. At its best, writing is a discipline for me that serves others. Wanting to engage significantly with readers through comments wasn’t something I imagined or expected early on. It’s probably a good thing; I don’t receive many comments on my posts. 

Exercise and consolidate my thinking. The convergence of a museum’s strategic and learning interests has been of particular interest to me for years. Areas not typically considered together, they are meaty and dynamic, separately and together. Vigilant to how they relate, I explore connections between them. Interactions between these enduring interests touch on strategic planning and educational planning; community context and public value; stakeholders and audience; learners and learning; experience, play, and exhibitions; professional practice and capacity building.

Opening up my thinking for exercise is planned (reading and research) and unplanned with conversations, museum visits, images, reflections, and walks. One way and another I stumble on fresh perspectives, emerging areas of thought, new connections, and points where I simply need to rethink. In writing and rewriting, I try for clear lines of thought, meaningful distinctions, and a better glimpse of what is worth revealing. Working to make a point sharper and more explicit, I search for the right…better, fresher, crisper … word sacrificing many words along the way. That new word often makes other thoughts seem fuzzy.  (And can I make it shorter?)

I don’t use exercise my thinking casually. The thinking required to write each of the 170 blogs has been decidedly more strenuous than I imagined. With false starts and dead ends, thinking (not to mention writing) is harder than it seems. Here the invisible but real presence of readers, museum clients, colleagues, conference presenters, authors, friendly critics, and other bloggers become partners in thinking and sustain my efforts. Rewarded when I hit the publish button, the lows and highs of writing wrestle and somehow balance out each other. 

Being helpful. Each post is not only an exercise in thinking, but also a hope that it will be helpful to others. Will this matter to a young museum professional; a group of museum founders looking for next steps; an executive director with a runaway board; a graduate student with a paper; an evaluator building staff capacity; an exhibit developer trying to frame goals; or a strategic planner wanting to rethink vision statements?

There are more dimensions to being helpful than I first realized. Being helpful can be inspirational or practical; build on the work of others or push into under-explored areas; reach into the past or project into the future. In 35+ years of working in and with museums I have experienced a wide range of situations and change. Work with many different museums gives me a sense of trends and issues that, if not “field wide,” are nevertheless shared by many museums. I encounter resources, books, local programs, special expertise, solutions to problems, efforts that haven’t worked, and valuable lessons useful to museums elsewhere.

Clues about possible topics spring from queries on LinkedIn discussions, Museum Junction, ChildMus, unfinished ideas from earlier Museum Notes, and blogs. My visits to museums also reinforce possible topics. Staff at museums across the country have similar issues (serving a wider age range) and express common frustrations (parents on cell phones). Museums have similar needs (project goals and learner outcomes); face similar challenges (a shared understanding of creativity, play and thinking); and get stuck in similar ways (adding, but not abandoning programs; valuing content over experience).

Even a good topic is not useful by itself. It requires a suitable context (connecting to what is current or enduring, like public value); relevant in different types of museums (inquiry, creativity, audiences); and applicable to museums at varying stages of development (vision, mission, and values). I frequently ask myself, “so what?” Why might this matter to what people working in museums and libraries, and to parents and educators, care about? What difference will it make to someone leading organizational change; making a case for the museum’s impact to a funder; or wanting to experiment a little? How can developing a learning framework be accessible to even small museums?  Can this idea be like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle they have been looking for?

I work to make overly-used, often tired and unchecked connections explicit; shine questions; and return complexity to what has been reduced and simplified. An added twist, even a somewhat contrary view, enters now and then as in promoting A Good Mess. I am drawn to exploring what we value for museum learners as parallel practices for museum staff: asking questions, experimenting, and taking risks. Perhaps most of all, I hope to make visible what we often overlook and undervalue: everyday moments; learners' agency; children’s strengths and futures; play, and the physical environment as a teacher and a mediator of learning.

In the long run, I have a hunch there is an exchange that occurs with readers, even though few actually comment. The exchange is more like playing it forward than a volley back-and-forth. Often I refer someone to a post that addresses a question, helps manage a board discussion, prepares them for a foray into a new area, directs them to resources, or helps writing a grant proposal–especially when IMLS grants are due. I often hear via e-mail or in conversations at conferences that a particular post has been timely. I am amazed at the growing number of readers in Ukraine, Romania, India, and Sierra Leone.

In closing, Nina, thank you for your end-of-the year blog and for your years of blogging. Thank you, readers, for your time and interest.