4. 3. 2021

English Version | Child's play

by Sara Andrade


“All children are artists. The problem is to how remain artists once you grow up.” The phrase is by Pablo Picasso, but many, almost all, would agree with it. Aware that there are exceptions that confirm the rule, why does going into adolescence, youth, adult life, robs us of the ability to look at the world with the eyes of a child? Why is creativity a child's play for kids, and for grownups, thinking outside the box is a conundrum?

© Jim Warren

"I like them [children] because they are the least irritating group of people. Others find them the most irritating. They can be very irritating, make noise. But they are the least irritating because they are less likely to say something that you have heard a million times. They're not yet full of clichés, you know? They're more original than adults. That gets taken away very quickly. They don't know what things are, so they make up or ask questions. They don't usually try to convince us that they know something they don't know, you know? And I find them very interesting.” If you haven’t seen Martin Scorsese’s Pretend it's a City on Netflix, with the caustic Fran Lebowitz as its central figure, this is one of the author’s many quotes to keep in mind. It’s worth printing them all on a t-shirt or mug, but, for this particular text, this is the only one we want as a premise. After all, believing that there is little resistance to the veracity of this hypothesis, it is interesting to confirm it, yes, but, above all, to know why. The growth hormone is inversely proportional to creativity, perhaps? As the body develops, does creativity not tag along for the ride? Is it the world that overshadows and restricts creative ability? Is every human being creative, and it's in fact society that corrupts him/her?

“Children don't have to be more creative than adults. The process and the creative ability will exist, from the start, throughout life. It is assumed that children are more creative because they play and we see them playing most of the time”, begins by clarifying Joana Janeiro, clinical psychologist with extensive work in child psychology.“ For Winnicott, author of reference in child psychology,‘ playing is a creative experience (…) a basic way of living ’. Creativity arises in the first years of life and assumes a vital importance in the psychological and emotional development of children. Children are naturally creative and have to be, even without being aware of it. As they grow up, they are and can experience being, while searching for themselves.” So, in the case of children, is creativity and the ability to question and discover the world around them also a way of forming themselves and knowing who they are? Janeiro continues: “Says Inês Manaças, clinical psychologist, in an introduction to a study of creativity: 'A thousand characters I went, because of my desire to be them.' in a fertile and particularly flexible territory in the children's world, between fantasy and reality. And it is in this transition that it is possible to create and be creative. The ability to represent and create symbols are favorable conditions for play and creative processes. That is, if a child realizes that an object is a pen, but it can also be something else, he can pretend that the pen is a sword and proposes a fight. You are in a position to create. This ability is more important than you might think, constituting the basis for school learning, such as the acquisition of reading and writing mechanisms, creative processes par excellence. ”

In a way, as we grow up, we decrease our play time and, consequently, the framework for creativity to manifest itself. On the other hand, we are discovering ourselves, we are forming ourselves, and thus shortening the room for maneuver to allow us be surprised. “Creativity is particularly clear in children, because space and time for playing give the opportunity to live and (re)create new universes”, adds the psychologist. “It is a privileged place when reality is an excess, is delayed, comes too fast or becomes an impediment to growth or the satisfaction of wants and needs. Playing is also the main tool for psychotherapeutic work, as it is a place where it is possible to stage, repeat anguish or other forms of expression of suffering, and find new solutions. Children will have, as a basis, a more spontaneous contact with emotions and affections, through play. This contact can enable the emergence of creative processes. Most of the time, due to the manifestation and recreation of suffering, such as sadness and frustration. We can understand that there is a more evident creative expression in children, as well as psychic characteristics of child development that may facilitate the emergence of the creative process, but creativity is expressed in other, more artistic and even scientific ways. Creativity is thinking in new and unexpected ways, as is characteristic of divergent thinking ”, she concludes. What happens to us, then, to lose this ability to marvel, to insist on divergent thinking, to look at things differently, to look at a pen and see a sword?

When we're little, we are less conditioned by patterns of thought, patterns that we acquire as we live and learn: to deal with obstacles and everyday situations, we adopt immediate responses, thinking techniques that work and that serve our purpose and, therefore, become instantaneous. This is also a way of adapting to society - we adapt the mind to the social norms and mentalities of the community in order to be more effective in the relationship with others. The fact that we are successful in doing this means that we tend to repeat the formulas that show results and, therefore, we are less inclined to think outside the box or to look at things from another perspective, as a child does (extending the their imaginative spectrum). We are hostages to our own success, because when something works, we tend not to leave its realm to try something different, to create something new. In a way, this obligation to succeed means that we are also conditioned by fear: of failing, not belonging, not being accepted. Children have not yet gained a sense of self-preservation (physical, but also social) like adults, so they are less afraid to dare, to think outside the box or to present ideas, however ridiculous they may seem - as well as, until they are taught, see no danger in an electrical outlet or heights. The notion of ridicule does not exist, because there is no constraint on norms: it is not ridiculous to believe in Santa Claus or Superman, since it is perfectly natural for this hero to wear underpants over tights. There are no beacons of what is socially acceptable or not, so anything that the mind imagines is valid. And therein lies creativity, at least within the possibility of practical realization of what can be imagined. Growth often restricts this achievement: either because of what society accepts, or because of the limitation of our own emotions, which accumulate on an emotional baggage we carry throughout life.

“For creative flexibility to exist, there must be a possible and flexible articulation between mental processes”, explains Joana Janeiro. “In the connection and dialogue between reality and fantasy. Between desire and rationality. The internal and external world, like society, with its context and norms. Some psychological and social organizations may operate more rigidly and encounter difficulties in the creative process. A tendency to repeat rather than create new and different things. Hardship in coming into contact with sadness or other forms of suffering, can hinder the creative process, and also condition the very need to create. A loss of spontaneity associated with greater defensive stiffness, caused by the demands of the reality of adult life, may also condition the importance of valuing and of the legitimacy of creativity. If it is self-sufficient, creativity needs outside contributions to enrich itself, through cultural, artistic expression, a sense of humor, meaning, through pleasure and enthusiasm for life ”, warns the psychologist. So, is it really society that corrupts creativity? Or rather, "adult life" with all its accumulation of emotions and heartbreaks and the obligation to live within community standards? Let's take a step back, let's not jump into conclusions - living in society and being creative are not mutually exclusive concepts. "We are all, in favorable conditions and mental health, more or less creative", guarantees the expert, ensuring that creativity is not lost throughout life; perhaps just remains asleep, we add. But that numbness can be countered. “We know that teaching methods based on traditional methodologies, repetition and copying, as well as the economic ambition in mass production, can remove space for creativity. But we are also moving towards a society where greater dynamism, unpredictability and an appeal to creativity prevail. Jobs that require creativity have facilitating environments that stimulate and nurture it, with free spaces suitable for playing and daydreaming.”

This means that innate creativity can either be castrated or stimulated by the environment. “The creative ability must be maintained”, underlines Janeiro, when we question whether adult life necessarily steals our creativity. “Its manifestation can, however, express itself differently over time. But you don't have to lose it. It can be nurtured with your daily existence. [Hayao] Miyazaki [Japanese animator and filmmaker], in a documentary that follows his creative process, filmed the street while traveling by car. And he argued that: ‘It is in everyday scenarios that I discover the extraordinary […] as ideas come from the unexpected’. Boredom, which arises at times of no activities or duties based on operationality. The factors of life and our external and internal reality. The challenges and times of crisis. The suffering. The freedom. Culture, art and a sense of humor.” They are all sources of inspiration for creativity, she notes, corroborating this idea that the world around us can contribute to us being more creative - or at least, so that we can sharpen it, whenever we feel it less manifest. In the case of children, the time they have available (because their purpose is to absorb what surrounds them), makes them extremely observant and attentive (more than adults, distracted by their daily chores), which makes them available to be influenced by the outside world in a relatively unscathed way: in addition to not being conditioned (yet) by social rules, they are also not conditioned by the emotional baggage that can immobilize the will to create. At the same time, the outside world forces them to create response mechanisms that will inevitably be the result of their creativity - if they don't know anything, they will have to dig up the answer in their mind to deal with the situations that are presented to them. “Winnicott talks about a gradual development of creativity: it starts at very early stages of development, what he calls 'transitional phenomena', a phase in which children choose an object (stuffed animal, for example) to calm down during sleep or in situations of separation from parents ”, explains the psychologist. “This phenomenon may already be a creative sketch, due to the reassuring alternative created in the face of the inevitability of separation and the absence of parents. During the growth, the child goes through the phase of playing more alone, then by the ability of shared play and from there to cultural experiences, as a creative expression. Creativity will also have different functions according to age. The adult (artist) symbolically recreates the expression of his internal world, through the work of art. The child is impelled to create in order to grow. To get out of more dependent relationships, or to create in order to create yourself. Creativity is at the base of the psyche growth and development and will continue as long as psychic life exists. However, it is important to maintain and nurture creativity. There are factors that can condition it."

But is it only the outside world, beyond age, that conditions our degree of creativity? Can our DNA have a more or less creative tendency? Is it possible for one person to be naturally more creative than another, to be born with a taste for creativity? In other words, is creativity, or can it be, to a certain degree, biological? “It is believed that children come prepared with all the tools necessary to be creative. There are, of course, genetic and cultural inheritances associated with other factors, such as fine motor skills, which may help especially in drawing and painting, for example,” replies Joana, stressing once again this need to feed the creative gene. “In the sense that children will have, on a path of healthy development, creativity as a basic tool, almost in full-time. They are, therefore, artists, whether in paintings, constructions, drawings, stories and 'make-believe' games. They are in constant creation.” And when we grow up, does reality overlap make-believe? Does this learning of responses to external stimuli with logical thinking cut creativity off? “Hayao Miyazaki says that easy-to-understand films are boring and that logical plots sacrifice creativity. He likes to break conventions because children don't think with logic. The creative effort, which can be either artistic or scientific, is seen as a process, which implies a continuous balance between divergent thinking and rationality. Creativity is, therefore, logical, and at the same time it is not ”, clarifies Joana. This is not to say that abandoning logical thinking and sacrificing our life in society is the only way to be creative; creativity and society are not mutually exclusive - neither is creativity and adult life. It is possible to reconcile the two: when an adult is very creative, “basically, he will have greater flexibility and balance ability. Between his world and the norms, reality and fantasy. Between his desire and reality. If he is truly creative, he will find solutions to relate to the standards.” Especially because creativity exists in adulthood - be it in hobbies or professionally: adults in areas of work or with interests in which the demand for creativity is exponential develop ways to stay creative, such as habits that can lead them to unpredictable territories, that is, they consciously choose situations outside (their) comfort zone, explore the unknown and look for voices different from their own. The systematization of creativity may not be as organic as that of children's imagination, but it manages to take from life experience tools that can increase it and even make it more impactful (perhaps even profitably for today's society).

In 1944, Edwin Land, an American physicist and inventor, was on vacation with his family and had just taken a photo of his three-year-old daughter Jennifer. The girl wanted to see the photo, but the technology at the time did not allow it. She asked why she couldn't see it right away. And she questioned Edwin Land enough times for him to invent the Polaroid. A good cue for us to return to Picasso. The painter, in addition to the sentence that served as a premise for this text, also stated: “Others saw what it is and asked why. I saw what it could be and asked why not? ” If it's already established that adult creativity is not nonexistent, quite the contrary, perhaps we just need to insist, as did Jennifer Land. And think like Pablo Picasso. Why not?

*Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's The Creativity issue, published march 2021.
Full credits on the print version.