Dance like no-one is watching

I was reading a blog post on Stuart Armstrong's website the other day which discussed the concept of engaging more kids in sport by having coaches think like the designers of video games. Reading this article and thinking about the premise behind my previous post regarding learning through unstructured practice (which you can read here), I started to ponder creativity and problem solving and their importance.

The crux of Stuart's article is that video game designers are becoming experts at designing activities that offer the right balance of challenge vs reward, have a balanced learning curve and encourage creative problem solving.*

In sport, business and life, our creativity is perhaps an underused resource, or rather a resource that many of us don't feel able to use. How many times have you heard somebody say “I wish I was more creative” or similar? Yet when we were children lack of creativity was never a problem.

As Stuart says in his piece: “It took me back to my childhood when I used to invent games with my brother and friends to play in the park or the garden.” Somewhere along the line we seemingly lose the ability to think creatively in this way.


Playing games

As an example, I was working with a group of world ranked, adult aged, tennis players and was looking to set up a short activity as a bridge between practices. The intention being to spark the creative side of their brains into life ahead of moving into a session which would require a great deal of mental exploration on their part.

To set the scene I put a lot of coaching “toys” (cones, hoops, markers, lines, different balls, balloons etc.) in a pile at the side of the court and decided to see what would unfold.

The conversation went something like this -

Me: You've got 15 minutes, pair up, take some stuff from the pile, find a space on a court and play a game.
Them: What game?
Me: Whatever game you like.
Them: What are the rules?
Me: The rules are you've got 15 minutes to pair up, take some stuff from the pile, find a space on a court and play a game.
Them: What game?
Me: Invent one!
Them: What? (staring blankly at each other and the “toys”)

There then followed a five minute delay as players nervously shuffled around, started picking up bits of equipment and gradually made their way to a space on court. What eventually followed was very interesting to witness, as the games they “invented” were basically all variations of tennis, albeit with slightly modified rules, or balloons instead of balls.

I found the difficulty with which they set about this task fascinating, so I repeated it with a group of 8 year old mini-tennis players. This time the conversation went like this -

Me: You've got 15 minutes, pair up, take some stuff from the pile, find a space on a court and play a game.
Them: Any Game?
Me: Yep
Them: Not just tennis?
Me: Anything you like
Them: Cool!

And off they went. A few grouped together played a sort of tennis-cricket combo, with a wiggly course marked out for the runners, another set played something akin to crab football, but with a balloon and there was some kind of hula-hoop whilst playing catch thing going on too. Over the course of the 15 minutes each of these games evolved, rules were changed and added, new challenges presented and problems discussed and solutions found.

Interestingly it also set us up to have a great tactical session as the kids were already in problem solving mode, so harnessing their creativity to overcome tennis problems came much more easily.


Imagination at work

This experiment put me in mind of something I had heard at a conference a couple of years ago regarding creativity and thinking like children and so I conducted another experiment inspired by that presentation.

The below photo is of the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

When showing this picture to a small group of adult colleagues and asking them what they saw the responses were as you might expect. They reasoned out that it must be a landscape, that there was a walkway running across the top third of the image so therefore it must be of a lake or a spring, probably a hot spring, maybe volcanic judging by the colour of the surrounding earth features. Pretty good deduction right?

When I showed this same photograph to a group of 8 year old kids, what do you think they saw? A landscape and a hot spring? No, they saw an evil wizard who is sucking the colour out of the land to keep for himself in his cloud palace, but there's a dragon who is blowing smoke and breathing fire to try to and stop him! Pretty different!


Think like a child

So when and why do we lose this ability to think like kids?

Picasso once said: "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist after he grows up."

Chartered psychologist Mark Millard says, “We have all had it drummed into us that there is one correct answer to everything and it's wrong to make a mistake. Children have no idea about these rules; they are chaotic and willing to search for many different answers. We all got educated into a fixed way of looking at the world, which is really very good if you are a banker an accountant or someone who drives a car. But it's definitely very unhelpful if you are faced with a problem where you need to be more imaginative."

Michael Dunn, is a senior lecturer in business psychology at the University of Derby. He cites new research done into the way the brains of jazz musicians work which suggests that lowering our barriers can be highly productive. "Scientists discovered that when jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow," he says. "And in doing this they are coming to the task more like a child would."

"Children don't know theories," he concludes. "Their brains are not conditioned. They haven't learned the should's and have-to's of the adult world. They don't know what's possible and what's not. How many adults would crawl around the floor trying to pick up a sunbeam?"

So are creativity and self-control mutually exclusive? Dr. Stephanie Carlson is studying pre-school-aged children to explore the development of executive function and imaginative play, the correlation between the two and to see if they’re contradictory. Three types of research (observation, correlation and experimental) have supported her conclusion that creativity and executive function work together in kids’ development:

Kids were told they could either have one marshmallow immediately, or if they waited until the researcher returned, they could have more. The kids were observed by the researcher during the waiting period. Kids who successfully waited used imagination to help them. They would pretend to eat the treat, or feed it to an imaginary friend.

Kids were rated on their level of fantasy and imaginative play, based on parents’ descriptions. Then the kids were then given a task related to executive function, and their performance on the task was rated. It turns out there’s a high correlation between level of pretending and executive function skills.

Kids were randomly assigned to do one of two things: 1) Pretend you’re someone else, like Batman or a princess, or 2) Think really hard about your own thoughts and feelings. Then, the kids were all asked to do the same executive function task. The kids who were told to pretend did significantly better on the executive function task. So again, using imagination is actually helping their self-control.


So What?

Essentially, whether coaching athletes or colleagues encourage their creativity. Create environments that allow them to turn off their adult inhibitions, take right and wrong out of the equation and allow them to explore ideas in a safe environment. Engaging in creative tasks helps us work more efficiently in rational, cognitive tasks. Most importantly, being free and able to think creatively helps us work around the problems we encounter, it helps us embrace those problems as challenges to be overcome, which in turn helps us push for that all important growth mindset.

In other words, help people "Dance like no-one is watching and sing like no-one is listening"

*You can read Stuart's full article here.