Creative play and the art of staying out of it

Blake and his net load of kina

A collection in a butterfly net.

I have had some interesting experiences, working in education and art over time. I’m not a qualified teacher, but I have lead workshops, educational programs (some designed by me, some designed by someone else) and I have observed. A lot. I have also had a rather thorough education in ‘fine art’ as an adult, I know what creative freedom and expression looks and feels like. In many ways, my experience at art school felt like the ideal learning environment; I could study and research anything, I could play, explore my idea/s, I could just start out on a process and see what happens, I could make mistakes and discoveries, I did need to be able to contextualise my work and to be able to talk about it in a critical, reflective manner.

kids working hard

Leaving them be; to work out a problem or just letting their idea materialise.

Sometimes creative activity, I’ll call it play, looks like nothing at all, sometimes it is really hard, sometimes you don’t know you’ve been busy at it until you’ve done it. Sometimes it’s internal, emerging through some project, process or object. It might be feed by reading, testing a new skill, a new or familiar material, it might be inspired by a novel, a documentary, a conversation or a person…Sometimes it can be hard to start.

Mousa Broch

Broch of Mousa  [source]

Skill-based workshops or ‘how to’ tutorials are valuable, often essential to up-skill or take a project to another level. But let’s not confuse following someone else’s process, method or lesson, and producing a well-thought-out, expected (and usually the correct) result, that looks just like your peers or the teachers, with authentic creative making or creative expression. It’s great to learn skills, learn about a tried and tested process (and it’s great to re-test and question that process too). It’s important to develop a deeper understanding of how things work by learning how someone else approached a problem. But it’s not necessarily creative.

broc tower

‘What I can do with all these stones…?’

So what is creative play and how can a parent or adult support it? Importantly, how can we hinder it?

Firstly, we need to cultivate in ourselves a sense of curiosity, creative enquiry, a joy in learning, we need to demonstrate and live this daily. It’s called role-modeling, and it’s nothing new! We need our environment to support play, exploration and freedom to make mistakes and discoveries without words like, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, we need to let go of judgement and expectation of ‘results’.

Blake and his net load

Secondly, we need to stay out of the way, and trust the process. This is, maybe, the hard part. Letting go of what we think ought to happen, resisting the urge to solve the problem, show them the faster, better, correct way to get it done. After all, if a person / child never gets the chance to pursue an idea, outside of someone else’s boundaries, will they be confident to take risks or try their own ideas?

kina tower

A kina tower.

What works for my children?

My approach depends on where my children are at, sometimes they need a bit more support, they might have started the day clashing, fighting, pushing back and just not getting on together. On these days, I will do my best to be a part of their play, either helping out (finding the desired Lego blocks) helping to spell a word, answer questions or just hanging out busying myself with a project nearby (hopefully with a calming attitude!). Maybe checking in and seeing how some aspect of the work is going, some days I’m invited to see what is happening.

city hut2

Luna and Blake will make huts anywhere, this was made while we were parked near a city park for about 5 – 10 minutes waiting to pick up their dad.

Other times, I don’t actually do anything, other than keep out of it! Maybe I provide buckets and spades or a butterfly net. Often, all they need is to be outside, for me to take them to the beach, or the park, or open the car doors when we get to town and say ‘yes’ when they ask if they can hop out and wait (then set-to building a hut beside the road). This is partly due to my opting early on not to provide lots of direction for their play, and partly due to just getting outdoors as often as possible, with few ‘toys’ to detract from their noticing where they are and what is at hand already.

loose rocks by the handful

Loose gravel from the cliff.

This beach visit, we had the usual buckets and spades, Luna and Blake had been fractious and interactions seemed to lead to hostility, so I started to explore some play ideas as an unspoken invitation for them to join me or just observe. The beach we were at has an abundance of stones, smooth, nice to hold and handle (and skip on water), as well as the usual beach flora, drift wood, seaweed etc. So I collected handfulls of stones, then stacked up a range of pieces of drift wood.

Sand and stones

Materials for open-ended creative play.

I said aloud to myself, ‘I wonder what I can make with this?’ We had been learning about Brochs, Luna in particular loves archeology and anthropology and learning about how people lived, so it seemed relevant to try building a structure of some kind. We had seen a documentary and been looking at lots of images, but had not yet explored them with our own hands. Luna asked what I was doing, I said I wondered if I could build a Broch with these stones, she was mesmerized, wanted to help, and I said, that I wanted to try by myself this time, but that I found plenty of stones if she wanted to have a go at building one.

Luna's bronze age dwelling garden

Luna’s Broch and garden.

She couldn’t resist. It was not easy either, it required care in selecting and placing stones, balance, a lot of trial and error, reassessing the plan. There was more than one wall collapse, and an ‘almost giving up, it’s too hard’ moment, but Luna persevered. I also pointed out that mine had collapsed a couple of times too…I wonder why? Is this tower too tall? Does it need thicker walls? Can I make mortar somehow? Eventually, a small ‘Bronze age’ garden, home and fire were materialising, tiny treasures from the beach adapted for the story.

Luna's bronze age dwelling garden 02

Luna’s Broch and garden, moss, bones, feathers, seaweed and twigs.

Meanwhile Blake started to create a ‘quarry’ and deliver rocks and building material far and wide. He built a house for his truck, moulded and then dismantled walls around his quarry.

Blake and his truck wall

Building the Quarry wall.

This play went on for hours, and once Luna and Blake had become engrossed in their play I could sit back, they were playing happily, within close proximity, and peacefully. Luna went on to source her own materials down the beach, and Blake created a huge road network with his truck.

Luna's bronze age dwelling

The area taking shape.

We talked about how skilled the Broch builders were, we reflected on how it was actually really tricky to find the right shape and size rock to build with, we wondered how and where they found their building materials. And Luna imagined a tiny ancient world, complete with a fire for cooking food.

Luna's bronze age fire

The Bronze Age fire.

We imagined what it would be like living in a Broch, how satisfying to build your own home, and how survival depended on doing it well, and co-operating with others.

Blake and his truck

Blake’s project nearby, a house for his truck and a quarry.

We also had a bit of a walk and run, fresh air and sunshine. And Luna and Blake seemed to move through their earlier battles. By the time we needed to head home, it was getting dark, we left the play area, and had lots more to talk about, Luna was fired to learn more about Brochs, Bronze and Iron Age life, Blake was fired up with other construction ideas, and love for the Kina remains he had found.

We marveled that, yet again, we had the entire beach to ourselves (and nana) for the day, what a treasure. I was reminded about the importance of supporting and not controlling play. To be available, to try an idea to start something, model a bit of problem-solving, and I had a bit more practice at know when to step back and let things flow. And I felt grateful to be able to take my children to the beach on a midweek, midwinter day.

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