How to Fuel A Child's Creative Fire
“And this is where we keep the goats and the chickens,” a young man explained to me, pointing to the lower half of his Lego construction.
“You can’t keep goats inside.”
This interjection came by way of the young man’s older brother, a boy of eleven who settled himself on the library floor with his arms crossed and began setting the facts straight. This series of interactions took place at a public library, where I was spending the afternoon with my four year-old son, building with blocks and reading books together. He met these two young men in the children’s section, where they eagerly set about playing “Minecraft” with the available Lego blocks. The two younger boys were building happily, telling ever greater stories about the adventures of their headless Lego men, while the older boy looked on with disapproval.
“You can’t put a guy on top of the roof! He’ll fall off!” He shouted, yanking the little Lego figure off of the building.
I’ll admit, it made me sad to see this. And while I don’t know this young man’s individual journey, I’ve experienced this particular pattern of behavior before and I know that, at least in my own case, it can be blamed solidly on conventional schooling.
I can still remember being ten years old in art class (which was my favorite class besides creative writing) and spending hours working on an illustration of a dragon. I used five different crayons to get the color of the scales just right, and I labored over every detail of the mythic creature’s appearance. Then, when I turned in my project to my teacher I’ll never forget the way she frowned at my drawing, tilting it left and right as though that might make it more appealing. She drew a big letter D across the top of my picture and handed it back saying sadly, “I’m sorry, but that looks nothing like a dragon.”
As a child, I was crushed. As an adult, I find myself indignant. I wish I could go back in time and say, “Excuse me, but what exactly does a dragon look like?” But instead, I spent years thinking I was no good at drawing, and all but gave up on most creative pursuits. I don’t fault the teacher in question, I’m sure she had her reasons for grading my dragon so harshly. I don’t believe anyone starts out in the educational system wanting to take away a the spark of a child’s creativity and wonder - it’s merely one more casualty of a system that is not designed to fuel actual learning.
I felt that same familiar sadness watching this young man correcting his little brother, removing the goats from the house, and the adventurer from the roof, and all the joy of expansive creativity from the play. Eventually, he got fed up with the illogical behavior of the two younger participants and went off to do something else. When he was gone, the younger brother grabbed a pirate ship Lego and stuck it on top of the house he had been building. Then he looked up at me with a cautious smile. “It’s a pirate lair,” he said.
“Awesome,” I told him.
One of the great gifts Alpine Valley School gave me was the return of my creative spark. With no one to judge my art or my writing, aside from myself, I blossomed. When I needed help with spelling or grammar, or getting the shaft of light just right in my painting, there were caring adults there to help me; adults who were still in touch with their own joy of creation. I thrived in the expansive environment at Alpine Valley School as so many creative, free-spirited children do.
There are rules, of course. But the difference is that the rules concern themselves with the behavior of individuals in a society, and on how a community conducts itself. The rules tell us how to operate and how to treat one another, not what is or is not a dragon, or a pirate lair. No one gets to decide that but the students themselves.