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Creativity is at the heart of a healthy society

PETE STEVENSON is concerned that children have an extraordinary capacity to innovate, but they are encouraged by teachers and parents to grow out of creativity, to leave it behind to the detriment of society as a whole

I WORK as a teacher in schools promoting the values of cultural diversity and race equality through interactive storytelling workshops. It’s great to feel part of ongoing projects to challenge racism, which is sadly active in many parts of the country.

However, as I was packing away my African drums and glove puppets one afternoon, a teacher said: “It’s good to give the children something different, something fun.”

I reflected on this as I drove away and thought: “Is that what I do, just give them fun experiences? Surely I do more than that?”

I was reminded of a comment made by Claire Johnson, a psychotherapist in Exeter.

“I work with deeply troubled people, often suicidal,” she said. “If adults in my care have engaged in imaginative activities as children, they are far more likely to believe they can get better.

“Those who have never played imaginative games, never pretended to be someone or something else feel locked into the way they are and can’t think that they can ever be different.”

So this tells us that creativity can save lives. The ability to imagine is far more than just a fun activity, although, of course, sadly in an increasingly narrow, results-driven curriculum, children rarely have fun in the classroom these days.

So, we shouldn’t deny the value of giving children and adults enjoyable creative activities.

Headteachers often appear obsessed with the Ofsted view of “standards,” which means children are drilled from the age of six in phonic testing and narrow, uninspiring writing and maths programmes.

Such headteachers are surely missing an essential point which is, the more enjoyable and active learning becomes, the more likely children are to make progress in all aspects of the curriculum, especially maths and English. 

In the 200 primary schools that I have visited in the past six years, I have seen no classroom drama lessons, no attempt by teachers to bring a book alive by recreating the story with simple costumes and props in the classroom.

Research tells us that such work enlivens children, stimulating them to pick up a book.

Drama is also a wonderful activity to build personal and social confidence that will help the child to have a go at a challenging task in another part of the curriculum.

Music is another dying subject, despite its obvious links with maths, together with the skills of co-operation, listening and confidence building.

A recent letter in my local paper moaned about school closures. The writer argued that teachers should be prepared to sleep overnight in a school if snow is threatened so that they will be ready to receive the children in the morning.

Comically, even if teachers are prepared to bed down in their classroom floors, there would be few children to teach the following day as so many of them are driven to school.

Again, an essential point is missed which is “snow days,” as they are now called, give children great opportunities for imaginative play.

I saw children making fantastic giant snow people, often working in partnership with their parents. They created snow angels and tobogganed at speed down icy hills. What fun and what a difference from the narrow primary curriculum and the tendency for so many young people today to play passive computer games for hours on end.

Pablo Picasso said: “All children are born artists …  The issue is to allow them to remain so. So often they experience the oppressive forces of narrow thinking. This causes them a great deal of frustration and sadness.”

The emphasis on music, art and drama in schools and within communities in Cuba shows us that creativity is at the heart of socialist societies and we know that, when left alone, tribal communities such as the Yanomami in Brazil and Venezuela see imaginative play as an essential way to bind together their communities.

It is interesting to note that pre-schools and nurseries have not yet succumbed to the narrow academic curriculum. I witness in almost every setting a celebration of creative fun as stated so clearly in the Early Years Foundation Stage objectives.

The following statement shows how one pre-school has adapted the objectives to their setting.

“Rich language opportunities must be offered to every child within highly interactive story-based activities. Children are asked to solve problems and answer how and why questions. What can we do now? Where do we go from here? How can we solve this problem? 

“Children are engaged in co-ordinated and controlled movements when enacting a story or singing and playing percussion instruments. They play and explore, motivated by a have-a-go spirit.

“Stories and percussion instruments come from India, Ireland, Africa and Eastern Europe. Within the stories several countries are visited and references are made to geography, food and music.

“Children feel empowered and express a positive sense of themselves and others. They are encouraged to respect other cultures and understand others’ feelings.”

What joy this is for the children. However, I am tempted to say to a pre-school child: “Make the most of banging the drum and dressing up. It may be your last chance.” 

Progressive academic Professor Ken Robinson offers creativity as a central principle of schools’ behaviour policies.

“Children with behavioural problems are given a special plan, tablets and told to calm down,” he says. “They should be given a curriculum with dance at the centre of their work because they are often highly creative.”

He continues in his TED Talk Do schools kill creativity? “Creativity should have the same status in education as literacy. Children have an extraordinary capacity to innovate, but they are encouraged by teachers and parents to grow out of creativity, to leave it behind.

“Art, music, drama and dance are given low status in schools, with drama and dance at the bottom. This seriously restricts their ability to solve problems, grow in confidence and enjoy healthy relationships as adults.”

Pete Stevenson can be reached on creativeworkout.co.uk. 

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