With me it’s walking (as well as creative napping, seriously – give it a go, it really works). When I’m stuck on something and need time to work an idea or plot through, I take myself off for a long walk and stretch my eyes and my lungs. When I remove myself from my work and head out for a long walk it is as if the air combs through the tangles in my thoughts and helps me smooth them out.
In fact it’s not just writers, all creative people need time to think. Every chef, decorator, landscape gardener, diagnostician, physicist, carpenter, journalist, lecturer, archaeologist, teacher…. Let’s face it, pretty much everyone benefits from a little time-out for puzzling a problem and thinking things through. In every walk of life there comes a moment where something requires a good long think.
So why is it so demonised? Why do teachers still write “spends too much time daydreaming” on school reports? Why are headteachers chasing their teachers to ensure that not a moment of the day is “wasted”? Why are parents afraid of letting their child just sit and daydream? Almost without realising it we have slipped into a world where inactivity is vilified so much that some children now spend their whole lives in organised activity. They whizz along through a school day with a timetable crammed full to the brim, and then hurtle on to a seemingly endless round of clubs and rehearsals. Parents have been encouraged to feel that they are somehow failing if their child is not playing at least three sports and two instruments at high levels.
As a young working parent I remember feeling this pressure on me to sign my daughter up for every activity and club that I could. When she started school I rushed to sign her up for new things, and it became ridiculous. Almost every day had a planned activity or club, all squashed in around homework and other things like piano practice, Judo, tennis… As parents we were running around at these various activities trying so hard to be perfect – right up until something snapped. We’d just had enough. We began to question the value of packing our daughter off to these endless clubs. She was tired, grumpy and frustrated. She was not the child she should be, she was becoming a small person who functioned on a timetable.
We ditched them. One by one we left behind many of these organised clubs and instead we just let her draw, or paint, or play in the park, or have tea at a friend’s houses, or we’d play board games or just go for a walk. Frankly we just did whatever we fancied doing for just a little while, whenever we could. Not a lot of time, just a half an hour here, and hour there. We started to make time to do random unplanned stuff. Bit by bit we all started to feel better, not to mention better off - these clubs are expensive. We left the timetable behind and we all began to feel liberated by not dragging half-way around the county every evening.
Her school work started to get better, and she wasn’t fighting homework. Her creative writing and drawing got better. Her imagination ran wild, and she wasn’t seeking out quick-fix organised entertainment. She went back to being the crazy free-thinker that she was before all the structure took the fun out of her life. We went for long walks and sat in the woods trying to see squirrels, or sat on the swings blowing bubbles. In short, we had a lot less planned time and a spent a lot more time mooching about.
The most impressive thing that happened was seeing how her imagination exploded! She was always creative but, with extra time to dream and think, her imagination ran away with her. Every teacher she’s had since has commented on her “wild and vivid” imagination. It was also wonderful to discover that her attention span lengthened. We are often led to believe that daydreaming is the sign of a short attention span, but that’s not the case.
I began to look at the other children around me. As a school librarian I realised that the children who had the busiest lives often also had the shortest attention spans. They were so used to being rushed off to the next thing, the next club or scheme or event, that they actually couldn’t sit still. It seems obvious when you think about it, but these were also the children who did not enjoy painting or writing stories and poems as much. They were not comfortable sitting and thinking for long, and this meant that the creative process felt slow and restrictive for them. They had never learnt the joy of daydreaming.
|Illustration by Shoo Rayner|
Earlier this month my good friend and awesome author, Jonathan Stroud, launched a new campaign entitled Freedom To Think. This campaign is not about nagging people to get their children to be creative, but is about supporting the process of taking time out for unstructured, unscheduled imaginative play. Their Tumblr account is gradually filling up with some fantastic ideas for creative play for all ages, and ways you can get involved too.
Personally I would like to see this in worked into the timetable in every school. I spent a decade working in a busy primary school (and over twice that time in libraries) and I know the value of free-thinking time. When I made the decision to add free-thinking time into my projects I found that the children came back with much more creative ideas for their work. We spend so much time in schools focusing on creative writing, but surprisingly little time on creative thinking.
The campaign is already being supported by top authors and literacy organisations, and there are ways of getting involved on their Tumblr and Twitter accounts (links here and below). If you feel you would like to support this campaign do contact them and offer your support as a creative person. As a writer and librarian I know how important it is to have thinking places and spaces in all of our communities, and libraries fit that purpose beautifully. I will be wholeheartedly supporting this campaign and I urge you to get behind it and share your own ideas and examples of your free and unstructured ways of (not!!) wasting time.
Vice President Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals
Children's author and School Librarian
More about the campaign - http://www.thebookseller.com/news/stroud-launches-freedom-think-campaign-308376
|Campaign illustration by Chris Riddell|