Saturday, March 9, 2019

Rewind: 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 of 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.