Travel with Your Kids for Creativity’s Sake
Can international travel make your child more creative?
Posted Jun 04, 2016
My family has a love affair with a small village in Central America. It’s a place that allows a conscious choice to disconnect, to find something different, and to feel deeply again. We always go to the same area—a tiny town lined with dusty shacks, with a mountainous jungle rising steep on one side and the roar of the ocean behind a thin veil of vegetation on the other. We all stay in one room, with the kids’ cots propped up off the floor to avoid the scorpions. These trips are made to deliberately immerse in something different and to consciously foster creativity.
But why take kids to a remote village to cultivate creativity when you could just sign them up for some dance or art classes? The reasons may be cultural. Some believe that America now values success and production over the creative process, and the rigorous way that these values are instilled in our children takes a toll on the psyche. The current school structure fails our most creative children dismally. Famous British comedian Lenny Henry was told stop being funny in school. Scientist Sir Harry Kroto was told by teachers to stop doodling, yet it was his drawing ability that helped him visually represent the atom structure of carbon that won the 1996 Nobel Prize. Creativity can be easily crushed by goals that are imposed by others, which makes it much harder to incorporate into formal education.
Sometimes it is only after naturally creative people have exited the formal schooling system that they begin to recover—to assume their true shape that has been stifled for too long. Some people never recapture their creative impulses at all, having skirted around them for so many years (Joubert 2001). The creative bursts that flow so organically from our kids can’t really be fostered in small blocks of time, neatly organized to occur in the brief after-school space that is left after eight hours of tiring academic rigor.
We parents seem to fare little better, stuck, as we are, in an artificial rhythm of commuting and marching with deliberate intent towards playdates, kid practices, the swinging door of the yoga studio. We are deeply engrossed in reading ingredient lists in the grocery aisle and buying small organic baby food pouches in bulk, measuring out our lives in teaspoons. The reality is that more of my friends are on antidepressants than are not. Our children soak in this dry, colorless landscape like small sponges. But sometimes disconnecting is all you need to reset your creative juices. When we travel, our kids see us making creativity a priority with both our time and money.
Studies have shown creativity skyrockets in individuals exposed to two cultures, two ways of doing everything. Every new thing a child experiences will become a tool in his creativity bucket. Russian psychologist Vygotsky maintained that every act of imagination has a long history, or incubation period. He theorized that a child’s prior experience provides tools for creativity and that the more a child hears, sees, and knows, the richer that child’s imagination will be (Vygotsky 2004). Children need tools to be creative with, just as a builder needs tools to build.
Extensive multicultural experience makes kids more creative (as measured by idea generation and association skills), and hones the cognitive processes that help them create in the first place, like the ability to capture unconventional ideas from other cultures to expand on their own ideas. For example, the longer people spend living abroad, the more likely they are to come up with creative solutions to problems, particularly if they still maintained ties with their original culture too (Maddux & Galinsky 2009; Maddux et al. 2012). Though we are marching towards a more global society, different cultures traditionally do things quite differently and these fresh perspectives are valuable in creating an open child, one who knows intuitively that multiple creative solutions are possible.
And though we’re cultivating a bit of creative wandering through these trips, there are many things about this remote lifestyle that would make my American friends at home, where every parent is working so hard to get it right, suck in their breath. Perhaps it’s not for every family. Wounds don’t heal well here, coughs linger. One trip during the wet season, there were an unusually high number of mosquitoes. Each night, I put the kids to bed in our room and then sat with my bare legs stretched out before me on our large mattress, flashlight in hand, crushing the mosquitoes as they landed on me, a delicious human trap. My kids have gotten sunburned, despite my best efforts. They’ve made catch-and-release iguana traps with the locals to catch new pets, and then had halting conversations in Spanish with the neighbor’s children about why iguana isn’t on our menu. Stray dogs will come and eat unfinished food off the dinner table while we’re inside putting the baby to bed.
But despite it all, we return again and again to this place. As a parent, it feels exhausting to constantly advocate for the things I’d like to see in our schooling system, but there are other ways to focus on creativity. As a neuroscientist, I know that practicing creativity makes people more creative, just as practicing playing sports makes people better at sports. And the value of these multicultural immersions far outweighs the negative aspects that come packaged with it.
I see so many other good things about our foreign experience. This is a place where nature is overpowering and creativity is a living, breathing thing. I feel creative and recharged here too. I value the vastly different body image here, where all women wear scant bikinis with healthy self-regard, regardless of their curvature. I value the evenness with which my kids get to equally interact with a German executive here on holiday and the Argentinian transplant who rents bikes out in town. It’s valuable for my kids to see the way that the children here only go to school for half a day, since there aren’t enough teachers to teach everyone. But how do you measure this value of these experiences in neuroscience currency?
Eventually I’d measure it the way most neuroscientists measure brain function—neuroimaging. Remember that a creative person does not rely most heavily on the “right” brain—instead, the most essential feature of a creative brain is the degree of connectivity it has, both between the brain hemispheres and within them. This connectivity is something that shows up on neuroimaging scans, but you see many various, sometimes distant, brain areas activated in these scans as well, though researchers have yet to figure out exactly why (Lindell 2011). And I’d expect to see more connections form as parents make more space for creativity in our children’s world.
In our culture, there is currently a movement towards investing in experiences rather than possessions for our children, but the value of traveling is an experience that is not completely summed up by the sights you will see. Fostering creativity in the minds of your children, although not as easy to visualize, can be an equally important reason to finally take that trip you’ve been planning.
1) Joubert, M.M. The Art of Creative Teaching: NACCCE and Beyond. In: Craft, A., Jeffrey, B., & Leibling, M. (Eds.). (2001). Creativity in Education. A&C Black.
2) Vygotsky, L. S. (1980). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.
3) Maddux, W. W., & Galinsky, A. D. (2009). Cultural borders and mental barriers: the relationship between living abroad and creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 1047.
4) Tadmor, C. T., Galinsky, A. D., & Maddux, W. W. (2012). Getting the most out of living abroad: biculturalism and integrative complexity as key drivers of creative and professional success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(3), 520.
5) Lindell, A. K. (2011). Lateral thinkers are not so laterally minded: Hemispheric asymmetry, interaction, and creativity. Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition, 16(4), 479-498.