Those of you that have seen my conference talks will know that my 5 year old daughter is my creativity mentor. A long time ago I too had those wonderful child-like qualities of an unbridled imagination and a belief that it was OK to simply be my creative self without fear of being perceived as mad, bad or wrong. It is through my desire to recover some of these qualities that I consider her my mentor and regard her play time as a time for me to learn.

Yesterday she gave me a lesson in creative improvisation: saying yes, committing, reincorporation and what we adults may call thinking-on-your-feet.

Maya isn’t a big fan of practicing her reading at the moment so she invented a more interesting way of using her set of flash cards – shuffling them up and then improvising a story around the order the cards are laid out.

Here’s a short video excerpt of the game with me interviewing her as to how she plays it.

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For me, the way Maya plays the game demonstrates some of the great skills of being spontaneously creatively that we as adults sometimes struggle with:

  • Don’t worry about it making sense: Even though there is a thread and a movement to her story she doesn’t pause to wonder to herself “Is this making sense?” or “Is this good enough?” and just carries on. The sense of the story emerges over time.
  • Total commitment: She trusts the first thing that comes into her head, says it and sticks with it.
  • Reincorporation: She brings cards from earlier on back into the story to add more depth and excitement to it. Human beings are naturally attracted to familiarity and reincorporation makes a story much more satisfying.
  • Obvious not original: She is absolutely fine with repeating stuff (several animals came to the party, one after another) rather than getting stuck trying to think of something original or clever for each picture.
  • Be altered and adapt: Whilst the thread of the story continues she is altered by each card and has to adapt her story. This is incredibly easy for her as she has no pre-determined sense of where the story should go.
  • Energy: She puts an incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm into the storytelling process which makes it even more engaging.

However, what I found most fascinating about this lesson from Maya was the way in which she responded to my questions as to how to play the game.

  • The story is already there you don’t need to think it up: She uses a metaphor of turning her eyes inwards to look in her brain to see the story that is there.
  • Just start and worry about the next steps as they arrive: She describes that by jumping in and saying “Once upon a time…” then the rest will flow.
  • Be obvious and trust your instincts: She says that by just looking at the picture you will know what to say if you trust your spontaneous response.

I was struck at how my very adult questions such as “How do you make that part of the story?” came across as quite dumb in her creative child-like world. It was almost as if the adult/child roles were reversed as she paused and tried to find a way to put her intuitive answer in a language I might understand. I’m reminded of a quote by Keith Johnston: “Many teachers think of children as immature adults…it might lead to better, more respectful teaching if we thought of adults as atrophied children.”

It was, however, the final piece of wisdom that Maya imparted to me that has stuck with me and continues to make me smile – her response to the question “Where does adult’s imagination go?”

Into the children’s imagination.”

So, our imagination never dies – we just pass it onto our children for safekeeping!