Creativity Series: LEGOs, Following Directions and Making Alterations
I’m starting this post by mentioning some major cuteness that took place a couple of weeks ago. My daughter’s birthday is exactly one week after Halloween, so when my husband and I committed to getting “official” 3 year photos of Stella (we haven’t had formal photos taken since right after Stella’s first birthday…oops!), we decided to have her dress up in her Halloween costume. Our little sparkler LOVES Mary Poppins; we’ve nearly worn out the DVD and her Mary Poppins plush doll goes everywhere with us. Chris and I thought that photos in her “Popps” costume wouldn’t only be a fun twist, but would perfectly capture Stella’s passions at this time in her life. Here are some of the fun shots taken by my uber-creative pal (honestly, since we were 12 years old) Stephanie of SMP Photograpy. She’s great with kiddos, has reasonable rates, and is really fun to work with!
Ok, so on to the next aspect of creativity that has my wheels turning: following instructions.
Research shows that “building freely” as opposed to following an instruction manual will help people come up with more creative solutions to problems. Much of this research comes from those little dimpled blocks that all children (and today’s parents) know and love: LEGOs.
Researchers from the Wisconsin School of Business and Buskerud and Vestfold University in Norway tested over 130 undergraduate students’ creativity scores after either free-building or kit-building with LEGOs. Those who followed the LEGO kit instructions did worse at solving “ill-defined” problems (those with no rules and infinite possible answers) than their counterparts. Additionally, even looking at a picture of a finished LEGO kit hampered the subjects’ ability to come up with original answers in later creativity tests. http://lifehacker.com/how-a-lego-kit-mentality-could-hurt-your-creativity-1712005926
I understand this idea, especially when it comes to parenting. So much of my professional early-childhood background creeps into my parenting style, especially when it comes to artistic expression. I like giving Stella blank sheets of construction paper, some crayons, tissue paper, markers, scraps, and glue: then just see what she comes up with. This idea is also utilized by our local children’s museum and (funnily enough) the manner in which they encourage patrons to use LEGOs. There are no kits with instructions or step-by-step tutorials. There are simply big bins of blocks of every size and color scattered all over a counter. Kids are encouraged to just sit down, dive in, and create.
This free-creation is a big component of the Creative Curriculum used in early childhood environments which focuses on students creating visual art through experiments, personal observations, and self-expression. Sometimes my organized half gets the best of me and I’ll let Stella color on a pre-printed coloring sheet or make a craft with a very specific outcome (usually for grandparent gifts), but I love letting her create freely. She’s got so many other rules to follow in her little life, so I like letting her be free in this manner.
But…when it comes to my own life…I feel uncomfortable creating something new without directions. As mentioned in my first post, I like organization and outlines, lists and checkboxes. I get easily overwhelmed and don’t know where to start when embarking upon a new creative endeavor when left to my own devices. Wanting to try something new, for me, requires following some instructions. For example, when I decided I wanted to try knitting, I needed guidance. I didn’t know what tools I needed (I assumed yarn, but in all honesty, wasn’t even 100% sure of this) and I had no clue how to start, progress, or finish any sort of knitted project. Looking at a knitted object as a guide to “figure it out” would have simply overwhelmed and frustrated me to the point of quitting before I even started. So my dad bought me Knitting for Dummies for Christmas. I NEEDED the instructions because, well, I DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO KNIT!
I’m reading Make it Mighty Ugly by Kim Piper Werker and I was surprised that she doesn’t shun the concepts of following directions in order to promote creativity. Her book DOES emphasize original thought, ideas, taking risks, and just flat-out making things, but it ALSO discusses how instructions can help people overcome their creative fears. She adheres to the idea that following instructions is not necessarily bad or a complete abandonment of creativity, especially when it comes to trying a new craft/practice: “…only some crafters design and innovate; most follow instructions” (5).
But there’s a key component that clicked in my mind concerning how individuals can transform direction-following into original creative thoughts and outcomes; Piper Werker refers to it as “Making Alterations.” She states, “Naturally, designing and innovating are not the only outlets for creativity. Improving upon or even just altering these designs by making decisions…-all creative” (5).
In this way, even though you’re following directions, you’re still creating something that is original and has never existed before. Piper Werker states, “…so many people – a huge number of people – prevent themselves from trying new things, even by making the smallest of alterations to what’s already been made by someone else” (5-6).
I really liked this thought and brought it to my husband a few days ago. Big projects overwhelm Chris, but the concept of making alterations was palatable for him. He realized that he actually makes creative alterations on a daily basis and that these alterations are important to his life and to our entire family. I got him in on brainstorming a list of creative alterations that can be made when following directions…here’s what we came up with:
- Buy a book on how to crochet or knit, but choose your own colors and yarn textures when creating a project from the book.
- Experiment with a new technique like holding a brush at a different angle while painting.
- Try different sizes of tools and materials – try a knitting project with a different needle size or paint on a miniature canvas.
- Repurpose items instead of using pre-made items. Try drawing on pages from an old book, map, or magazine instead of buying fresh, white sketch paper.
- Replace, add, or delete an ingredient from a recipe. (My husband is the king of this alteration. He comes up with creative ways to season almost any food. A recipe is his blank canvas and the spice drawer his watercolors.)
- Choose your own frame and mat for a print or photograph in your home.
Making these minor alterations doesn’t require taking huge risks or deviating too much from instructions. But these alterations can also build an individual’s confidence to the point that they may make further alterations…then giant alterations…to the point that their creativity overflows into a brand new and original style, idea, or technique. Alterations seem to have the power to bridge the “I don’t know how,” and the “Look what I just did!”
Agree? Disagree? Does the concept of making alterations seem less threatening than creating from scratch? Does the concept of making alterations seem to inhibit or promote creativity to you?
As you think, take a look at the corresponding photos below. Have a creative day!