You may have seen (or read some of) the “Who was/is . . .” series of biographies (published by Penguin). As a teacher, I found my students loved to read these books.
I admit that, at first, I was a little dubious of their value. I am always a little hesitant with book series as they can be formulaic and lacking in promoting acquisition of new vocabulary (Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia and other classic series excluded). Also, as a fifth grade teacher, I felt the reading level was a little low for my students. However, as I have read many in the series over the years, I have concluded that they are definitely worth the investment (in terms of both money and time).
The main reason for this is that the books help young readers identify traits, attributes, and other characteristics associated with achieving fulfillment in a chosen field. As a creativity researcher, I am very interested in the traits of creative individuals. Although there is not really a consensus list of traits, those commonly associated with creativity include (but are not limited to):
· Risk Taking
The architect of this series (the books have different authors) obviously is interested in traits, too. In an unobtrusive but identifiable manner, the series examples that are about creative individuals highlight these traits and detail experiences from the subject’s life that demonstrate them. The books often go beyond illustrating the traits – they discuss the activities (even in childhood) that these individuals engaged in to develop these traits (as well as attributes and skills).
· Beatrix Potter demonstrated great curiosity, collecting, studying and recording her observations (through notes and detailed drawings) on just about everything natural she encountered on her childhood trips to Scotland.
· From an early age, Ben Franklin was an avid reader who used some of his food money to purchase books. This characteristic of his helped him amass a great deal of background knowledge that aided him in his many intellectual and other pursuits.
· Jeff Kinney showed perseverance by working on his first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book for 8 years! - at night, after his day job, even when his writing area repeatedly flooded.
The same is true when reading the series entries about leaders, scientists, entrepreneurs, etc. It is easy to see (from childhood on) the traits and attributes associated with (and that contributed to) each individual’s accomplishments in his or her field.
I have included some items here that might be helpful as you use the books.
· A link to a general list of traits.
· A list of traits of individuals in four areas of endeavor. You can give this list to children reading the books to help them identify the traits discussed in the book. If they read several of the books in the series, it would be interesting for them to keep track of the traits of each of the subjects and then compare them.
· A book review sheet. Just a compact, quick way of recording the traits and life events of the biography subject.
Effectively, the books serve as mini-mentors – showing children a pathway to fulfillment in a chosen career. As a bonus, the biographies tend to lay bare the subjects’ failures, illustrating for the reader the ways in which failures can be learning experiences and how one can move on from them.
As with just about enterprise, the “Who was . . .” series has its own website. The main purpose of the website is to sell books (of course), but they do offer a pop quiz, an app adventure game, lesson plans and worksheets.
If you work with a child who is between grades three through six, dig into some of these books and learn all about the traits that helped these individuals achieve their goals.
The other day, we spent a lovely afternoon with a group of elementary school students (mostly kindergarteners) making animals out of clothespins. It was a pretty standard activity – grab some painted clothespins, add your run of the mill craft materials (construction paper, markers, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, etc.) and – voila - you have a veritable zoo of little critters.
What made this experience special was that while we transformed the craft materials into animals, many of the children were transformed. As the children worked, they became more and more vocal about their abilities as creative individuals. Not only did they become more confident as they chose bolder and more unusual ways to personalize their animals, but even recognized what they were doing as creative – even though we never used that specific word. At one point, two girls had a discussion about their creativity. One of the girls said, “I haven’t been this creative in years.” (I suppose she was harkening all the way back to when she made mudpies as a two-year-old). The other replied that she “was getting her creative on."
Some groups of the students talked about where their animals would live. Others began naming the animals. Even though one student remarked that the animals were “ not really alive,” I sensed a definite suspension of disbelief for just a short time that perhaps the animals did have a degree of animate qualities and that the students might interact with them accordingly when they finished.
To this end, as they worked, I “performed” a little imaginative play skit with my finished animal. “Oh such a lovely day,” I said in a falsetto Giraffe voice as I moved my clothespin critter up and down as if it was ambling along the plains. “I think I’ll walk over here and eat some leaves,” I added. Then, I reared the giraffe up, crying out, “Eek, a crocodile, think I’ll go the other way,” and turned the giraffe swiftly in the other direction, galloping him away from the dangerous (completely imaginary and unseen) reptile. The children laughed in delight, but more importantly, that was all it took for them to start talking about what their animals would do when finished.
As we walked in our straight line to the exit for the day, I asked the children what they had named their new friends. I expected just a couple of hands. Instead, most of the students’ hands soared, demanding an opportunity to share that vital information about their new creation. The students dutifully waited to take their turns sharing. Speedy, Jasmine, Pony, and Sandy were a few of the names.
It was such a pleasant, and effective, activity which consumed less than an hour’s time. Just a short amount of time and a little effort, and these children had an indelible (hopefully) experience of being creative that will (again, hopefully) transfer to home and other settings. This just shows how little it takes to get kids’ creative juices going. And, upon occasion, it can probably take even less. So, don’t be intimidated by the word “creativity.” Just about anything you do with the kids in your life that involves a little imagination will liven their thinking.
I look forward to next week with this same group to carry those feelings and dispositions further with the next fun, creativity -inspiring activity.
What Marco Polo Saw: An Adventure on the Silk Road
By Sandra Markle
Age Level: Upper Elementary
Best Use: Shared Reading (Adult and Child), though accomplished readers can read it alone
Despite the way the title sounds, The Animals Marco Polo Saw is more than a catalog of camels, elephants and other unusual beings. In fact, many different aspects of Marco Polo’s journeys to the East are detailed and beautifully illustrated in this book that introduces the reader to the history and exotic features of this long ago highway of trade.
The colorful prints lend support to the text and describe such events as Marco Polo’s boyhood and family mercantile business, the initiation of the journey to the East, run ins with bandits, a bout of disease in the bitter colds of Tajikistan, crossing the mountains, meeting and working for Kublai Khan, and, finally after 17 years, heading home.
At each point in the journey, an inset offers pictures and information of an animal integral to the experiences there and provides interesting facts such as the differences between Dromedary and Bactrian camels.
The book is actually part of a series on the explorers (individuals whose explorations “had a major impact on people’s view of the world”). Each book describes the adventures of an explorer with the same underlying structure of featuring animals the explorer witnessed along the way. Other explorers in the series include Robert Scott, Christopher Columbus, and Charles Darwin.
Not only is this book fun to read, but it is useful to instigate further activities:
We hope you find the book as valuable as we did. Either way, comment on this blog to let us know.
*Tampa residents, this book and some of the others in the series are available through Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative.
On our website, we have talked a lot about experiencing nature as a context for developing creative traits. As we explained on the page for Experiencing Nature, getting outside sparks curiosity, ignites passion, and engages children in a complex world that helps them build background knowledge and illustrate broad connections. Paradoxically, while nature can be a foundation for all of these activities, it is also a great place for quiet contemplation that allows for reflection and subconscious creative activity.
Coming up soon is this great outdoor activity in which to participate. The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is an annual bird watching event coordinated by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society.
What – A worldwide count of birds
When – February 16 – 19, 2018
Where – Your backyard!!
How – Sign up online (ahead of time preferably) through the website and download a checklist of birds found in your zip code and an observation form. Then, for as little as 15 minutes, go outside and count (and identify if possible) the birds you see.
You can conduct your count in your backyard or any other location of your choice. You can even make your observations at more than one location during the course of the weekend. Then, sign in to the GBBC site and submit your observations. There’s a slideshow posted to the GBBC website that walks you through what to do and how to do it.
How this activity is related to creativity
Brrr! It is cold outside. Although we heartily encourage adventures in nature for nurturing creativity, this may not be the time for it. Animals hibernate in the winter but only after they have spent all fall gathering the resources they need to fuel their hibernations. We recommend winter as a time for children to gather their resources.
This process is part of the stage of the creative process known as “preparation.” Probably the most important resource gathered during the preparation stage is background information. This information then can be used for incubation (thinking and reflecting on information to come up with ideas (which might be akin to animal hibernation) and ultimately used to generate new ideas.
Reading is one of the best ways to prepare and gather information to use for creative ideas later. We could write a whole book on reading and creativity (and in fact we are working on one currently), but here we want to talk about two activities that encourage reading and facilitate the connections between reading and creativity.
Not only does reading provide an opportunity to gather information, it allows individuals to develop their imaginations and visualization skills. Furthermore, it stokes curiosity while providing the means to satisfy that curiosity. And finally, reading helps individuals see topics, events, and issues from different viewpoints and develop multiple perspectives.
Hands down, we have found in our research that the most commonly held trait of highly creative individuals is avid reading.
So, what can you do to engage your child in reading in a way that accomplishes all of these? We will address this question periodically in our upcoming blogs, but today we focus on two methods for getting your children reading in ways that spur creative thinking.
Having your child write and publish book reviews is a great way to motivate them to read, but it also engages him/her in extending the reading. Because the child is evaluating the book and forming an opinion, he/she is putting his/her imagination into play and sharing his/her perspective. Plus, when children have a passion for a topic or genre, publishing a review is a great way to express that passion and share it with others.
There are several places to publish book reviews online or in print. We have included a couple of ideas below that we feel are relatively safe options for this type of activity.
Common Sense Media is a website whose overall mission is to provide parents and children with information about media (books, movies, websites, apps, etc.) so that they can make decisions about what they want to read, watch, etc. One feature of the website is the ability to review items. To review a book, you simply click on the title, scroll down, and post your review. You must be a member, though, which means providing an email, entering your name and zip code, and agreeing to their terms. Your published review does not have to have your name on it.
An option for getting a book review into print is Stone Soup magazine published by the Children’s Art Foundation, a highly reputable non-profit organization that was established over 40 years ago. The magazine is published digitally each month with an annual print compilation of the year’s editions.
Humans are social animals, and hibernating (gathering resources) completely alone may not be appealing. Thus, we also recommend book clubs as a way for children to get motivated to read and extend their reflections on the books they read.
If you are lucky, your local library has a children’s book club already in place and your child can just join the fun. If they do not have one, you might volunteer to start one at the library. Some libraries have kits ready to go for this purpose. See this example from the Montclair Public Library in New Jersey.
If this is not an option, consider starting your own book club. You can start a book club by identifying your child’s friends who would be interested and inviting them over for an organizational meeting. Depending on the age of the child, you might want this meeting to have a slightly party atmosphere with snacks and games.
For younger children, it might be good to keep it simple and let them read books together at the club meetings and talk about them with each other. This would require having several books on hand, but these can be obtained from the library.
Older children and adolescents can work together to decide on books they would like to read and then set schedules for reading them and meeting back for discussions. When they meet, in addition to discussing the book, you can provide activities to further their understanding and appreciation. The children can act out scenes in the book or conduct a Reader’s Theatre with a selection from the book. Or, each book club member might assume the identity of a character in the book and then they can interact with each other based on a prompt you provide for them.
Variations on the usual theme of all reading the same fiction book include:
· Organizing a group of children who have similar interests with your child and reading non-fiction books on that topic. Children can all read the same book, or better yet, read different books on the same topic and then share what they read.
· Having children bring their favorite books to the club and sharing about them.
· Organizing a virtual group or meeting virtually. You can use Skpye or a closed Facebook group for this purpose. Skype provides real time interaction, but Facebook allows you to monitor content. If you use the latter, children can video themselves talking about the book and other children can comment with their responses.
Several organizations have their own recommendations for starting children’s book clubs. Here are a couple of them:
· PBS Parents
· Multnomah County Library
As with anything you do online, please be sure to vet organizations appropriately. Our links are just suggestions.
Leave your own ideas and experiences related to book reviews and clubs for kids in our comments section below.
Happy hibernating with books (and gathering valuable information for later creative use)!
We are excited that you have found our new website on nurturing creativity. Through our blog, we hope to highlight the elements on our website, sharing as many specific activities as we can that you can adapt to nurture the creativity of the children in your lives.
Our website, which is based on our research of the childhoods of hundreds of highly creative individuals, spotlights the types of activities common to these individuals and ways to, in today's world, provide similar activities for children.
Our site is divided into sections:
Creative Traits - A description of the traits common to highly creative people and examples of what these traits look like in childhood.
Highly Creative Individuals - Here you will find information on the childhoods of these individuals including the activities they engaged in as children and how these activities were related to their creative traits, and ultimately, their creative productivity.
Creative Activities - Let's face it; this is why you're here. What can you do with your children to nurture their creativity? After analyzing the childhood activities of the individuals we studied, we came up with a handful of general areas of activities on which those working with children should focus. On the main page for each of these categories, we explain how each category of activities is related to creativity. Also, you'll find links to many different specific activities as well links to resources.
Blog - This is where we get specific. In each blog, we will feature a specific activity that nurtures creativity. We will provide step by step details on what to do with your child and a list of helpful resources.
Reviews/Suggestions- We've read a lot of books on creativity! And, we've read a lot of kids' books that are useful in nurturing creativity. We share these along with some websites, games, etc.
Catch-all Corner - Not wanting to leave out anything we gleaned from our research, we have a "Catch-all Corner with miscellaneous items like articles, websites, and resources.
As Daniel Seigel, author of Brainstorm: The Power and Passion of the Teenage Brain, pointed out, early childhood is the time for exploring interests which are then narrowed during adolescence. We have found through our research that the parents are the primary means of initiating and encouraging this exploration. The purpose of our website is to provide you with ideas and resources to help you in this endeavor.
Elizabeth Fairweather owns an educational enrichment and consulting company and teaching graduate courses in gifted/creative education. Tommy Fairweather is a retired teacher of gifted students who works as an educational consultant and columnist.