This morning, while the baby took a nap in her stroller, my two-year-old and I opened our little beach pop-up tent to full size in the Music Room. She ran to the game closet in the hall and brought back a small container of play-dough, entered the tent and zippered the entrance shut. I sat inside the tent, on the carpet with her. She took the play-dough out of its container and squashed it into a lumpy pancake. Then she poked the pancake with the container in time to the music playing. She had no plan–but kept herself totally occupied for at least a half hour. Then suddenly, she stood and said, Mom, can you make chocolate milk?
My daughter plays without a plan all the time. Until she needs help. And she does need help often. Toddlers generally need help every three or four minutes. Their impulses are bigger than their capacity. Still, she needs less minute-to-minute attention than my ten-month-old. Babies and toddlers require so much adult help on so many levels. I often marvel at the resources necessary to raise just one little person to adulthood. But why is this so? Why do young humans need so much care? Why can we not be more like, say, puppies, maturing much sooner? Wouldn’t we progress faster as a species if adults weren’t so preoccupied, so much of the time, with the needs of children?
Cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik has studied babies for more than a decade. She says,
The evolutionary answer seems to be that there is a tradeoff between the ability to learn and imagine — which is our great evolutionary advantage as a species — and our ability to apply what we’ve learned and put it to use.
Children are like the R&D department of the human species. They’re the ones who are always learning about the world. But if you’re always learning, imagining, and finding out, you need a kind of freedom that you don’t have if you’re actually making things happen in the world. And when you’re making things happen, it helps if those actions are based on all of the things you have learned and imagined.
The way that evolution seems to have solved this problem is by giving us this period of childhood where we don’t have to do anything, where we are completely useless. We’re free to explore the physical world, as well as possible worlds through imaginative play. And when we’re adults, we can use that information to actually change the world.
My two-year-old can keep the electric mixer steady in the batter bowl when she helps make pancakes and she can dress herself pretty well. Still, she spends hours following her whims–trying things out. She hops. She puts on lipstick. She cleans the interior of my car with baby wipes.
We all used to play this way, but most of us live very directed lives as adults. Yet, Creativity requires us to play with thoughts, ideas and mediums, pointlessly–like a two-year-old.
Improvisational violinist Stephen Nachmanovich says,
The most potent muse of all is our own inner child.
Writer Julia Cameron suggests you take time to find this inner muse by taking yourself on an Artist’s Date. She says,
The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly “artistic”– think mischief more than mastery.
If my two-year-old’s impulses are bigger than her capacity–my capacity is bigger than my whims. Looks like I need an Artist’s Date–but I doubt I’ll spend it squashing play-dough!