Monday, 7 September 2015

Freedom to Think by Dawn Finch

I can read minds. Well, let me be more specific – I can read creative minds. I know with absolute certainty that you have done a huge amount of daydreaming. In fact, I also know that you would not be able to write your stories and poems, or create your beautiful images, without spending a significant amount of time daydreaming. You might call it planning, or plotting, or even conceptualising or (one of my favourites, thank you Lucy Coats!) creative napping  – but we all know the truth; to be a creative person requires a good amount of staring-into-space time.

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.

Dawn Finch
Vice President Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals
Children's author and School Librarian


Campaign illustration by Chris Riddell


Anne Booth said...

This is a very good post - you are so right. And I will stop nagging my 17 year old son, who, of my four children, is the one I 'catch' doing nothing most often. And because I am worried about his 'A' levels, have been spurring into action. I think I'll try a different approach (the nagging doesn't work anyway, to be honest!) and I'll show him this post

Joan Lennon said...

Freedom to think, dream, gaze - being comfortable spending time inside your own head - we need these things! Thanks for posting -

John Dougherty said...

I always tell kids on school visits that daydreaming is an important part of the creative process - but perhaps I should be a bit more forthright in telling teachers how essential it is!

Dawn Finch said...

I think that one of the important things that we can do is to try to get headteachers to understand how important it is. The senior teachers that I've worked with would love to have the freedom to put thinking time back into projects, but their headteachers put pressure on them to fill every second of the day. New teachers have not learnt how to put creative thinking time in and don't realise how essential it is. It's a great shame. Everything we learn needs time to embed, and every child needs some breathing space to allow that to happen.
It always seems strange to me that we expect children to do what we can't do ourselves. If someone gave me a twenty minute talk on a subject and then put a blank piece of paper in front of me and told me to write a poem I'd come up as blank as that paper. If, however, someone talked about a subject and then let me think about it for a day or so I'd be able to write one. Why would young minds be any different?

Penny Dolan said...

Daydreaming seems an unstructured kind of thing but I wonder if it also builds in a longer sense of commitment, a relationship with idea/s? Maybe all the clubs and set activities promote a "switch in" and "now switch out" attitude? Just musing.

Georgia said...

Dawn thank you so much for this brilliant article - you put the concept of the FREEDOM TO THINK campaign beautifully and it's great to hear how your experience of letting your kids 'off the leash' kick started their imaginations. Sincerest thanks for your support. Georgia (Jonathan Stroud's assistant)

Georgia said...

Good luck Anne with your 17 yo! I suppose he's at the age where TV/screen-time is a big issue. We're careful with how we're handling that in the FREEDOM TO THINK campaign - taking a 'time out' for thinking means also switching off screens and taking away those passive activities, in the hope that an idea or an activity will be sparked. Thanks for all your support for the campaign, it's very much appreciated. Georgia (Jonathan Stroud's assistant)

Georgia said...

You're right Joan, a sense of comfort within your own head is a great way of putting it. I know lots of adults who are not comfortable in their own heads, and need constant company or distractions. That's why it's so important to encourage creativity and use of your imagination as a child, so they grow up to be independent thinkers.

Georgia said...

John hi - we've produced some FREEDOM TO THINK flyers aimed at teachers/parents, if you'd like us to send you any to hand out at school events? Email me if you're interested: georgialawe (at) gmail (dot) com. Great to see you pop up on here, it's a long time since we were in touch when I was at RHCP (6 years to be precise), hope all is going well for you? Georgia

Georgia said...

Interesting switch in/out idea Penny, and I personally think you're right. So in art class or after-school drama, it's an instruction 'now be creative' and actually, it's hard to be creative on demand. But maybe if kids have more 'boredom' time to fire up their imaginations, they'll find creativity on demand easier. Is our imagination like a muscle, the more you use it, the better it gets?

Nicola Morgan said...

100% agree.

Georgia, I do a lot of talks and training for teachers and librarians about digital distraction etc and I'd love some of your flyers. Would you like to give me some? If so, do email me -

Nick Green said...

I have long believed that schools would do well to give children a version (perhaps simplified) of the Myers Briggs personality test at the age of about 8. It would transform education.

The world of endless clubs and activities that you describe, Dawn, may well be ideally suited to the extraverted personality. I've often thought (somewhat cattily I admit) that extraverts are those who think by moving their lips, while introverts do so by closing them. Another really massive difference is between Sensing types (those who understand the world through their senses) and Intuitive types (those who draw meaning from ideas and concepts... most daydreamers fall into this category). If you teach an IN person in a way that's designed for an ES person, the ES person will look like a genius and the IN person will just sink into misery and feel stupid. And vice versa.

This is one early years test that could benefit all children. There's no pass or fail - everyone wins, because then everyone could get the kind of lessons suited to their personalities.

Steve Gladwin said...

Such an important initiative Dawn. When I was growing up in the sixties there was time for both piano and flute lessons but they were choices my parents made. At school I also got involved in after school, activities but again it never seemed enforced. I had the chance to spend countless creative hours 'day dreaming' despite doing all this. When I was older I would use the valuable time on the walks to music lessons thinking up plots for stories. It's sad to think the balance has altered so that we are encouraged to look down in the creative in favour of the competitive. Thanks for letting us know about the campaign.

Nick Green said...

An aside point, but this reminds me of what I find most difficult about school visits (at least, back when I still did them). It would be suggested that I talk about the writing process, and I would really struggle to put this into words. How do you convey a vague sense of footling about until an idea comes to you? It's not a process at all, it's (to paraphrase The Doctor) a wibbly-wobbly musey-woozy sort of thing.

Heather Dyer said...

Great post, thank you. I couldn't agree more. It's tragic how we structure all creativity out of children's lives, and don't allow them any time to explore their own curiosity.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks for this Dawn. I wish more parents & teachers could see this. It links in with a post I wrote for ABBA at the beginning of August... 'Running Wild This Summer' where I refer to Joseph Coelho saying how important running free in his childhood was to his writing poetry. I can only say my son spent half his childhood 'musing' up a tall tree and has now brought out his first YA novel with Penguin.
Loved your session at CWIG Bath esp having Martin Salisbury on the panel with those wonderful visuals. Thank you for that as well as your post.

Julie Sullivan said...

This is a wonderful post– thank you! It fits in with the way children aren't allowed to wander freely any more, either. I hope lots of parents and teachers read this.