Play in the Field: Lessons from the Andes about Creativity

by | Jun 24, 2019

Possessing a creative mindset is an increasingly important skill in our fast-paced modern world. Fostering this outlook enables us to generate new ideas and solutions, which help us successfully solve problems. While it is crucial, it is not always encouraged, as I have found personally. There is still a web of stigmas attached to the word ‘creative.’ I grew up believing that creatives were lazy, impractical and lived an alternative and undesirable existence. It was fine to have hobbies, but it was not possible to make a comfortable living from your craft.

There is no doubt that environment plays a key role in the development of creatives and highly sensitive people. As Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way, noted, artists need to be supported in positive ways, especially during their early discovery phase. Meanwhile, medical studies, such as those of W.Thomas Boyce, are demonstrating how the same social environment impacts children in different ways.

Following common Swedish terms, Boyce and his team suggested that there are two main groups of children: dandelions, who are seemingly more resilient psychologically and can grow well in a range of conditions; and, orchids, genetically sensitive children who are highly affected by their surroundings, especially the home and school. For example, if an orchid child experiences conflict with a teacher during their first few years at school, this encounter can become a major hurdle in their development, potentially impacting them for the next seven years! When raised in optimal conditions, just like the plant, the orchid child blossoms and often exhibits extraordinary and exceptional abilities.

So, how can we foster creativity in a positive way? While working among Peruvian communities some years ago, I learnt about their approach to creativity. These experiences motivated me to reflect on what I believed and had been taught. From this process, emerged a new nexus of understandings and practices that have helped me grow and flourish as a creative and an educator.

The llamita and the Inka’s mobile phone

My interest in the Andean perspective of creativity was first ignited when I witnessed an act of creative play during an excavation at an Inka shrine in Cusco some years ago.

I had been volunteering on the dig for several months and working in a trench situated alongside a well-built Inka stone terrace wall. One large stone had been carved with an almost rectangular-shaped feature. We didn’t know what the carving meant but after a lively and jolly chat, my Quechua speaking friends decided as a joke that the carving was a ‘cellular’, a mobile phone, because of its shape and its function was to put us in contact with the Inka ancestors. While they were joking, their interpretation was kind of fitting, as the site we were excavating had once been devoted to oracular consultation. From that moment on, the stone was known as ‘the Inka’s mobile’.
One afternoon, towards the end of the season, Diego, a Quechua speaking field assistant who was working in a nearby trench, leant down and took a small amount of earthen clay into his rough and strong hands and rolled it into a ball. Once the ball was a nice round shape, he began to gently tear, mould and smooth the edges with his fingers. In wonder, I silently watched him. A few minutes later, from the cup of his hands, emerged a ‘llamita’, a miniature llama figurine. Quietly, he walked over to the edge of my trench and placed the figurine gently and respectfully on the Inka’s mobile. Curious, I asked him what had inspired him to create his little clay friend. He looked at me oddly and replied, ‘yo no sé.’ (‘I don’t know’). The little llama remained on the mobile for the rest of the excavation.

Diego’s response to my question puzzled me for a long time until I began observing children in a range of learning environments, back home in Australia. When inspired by an idea, young children often gravitate towards the craft table and begin to experiment, creating with materials provided. Although enthralled while experimenting, I have watched time and time again, children simply get up from the craft table and abandon their masterpiece after finishing it, seemingly unattached to it.
After a time, the penny finally dropped. My question and Diego’s reply had revealed the differences in our socialisation. It seemed that creative play was natural to Diego; he did not question or overanalyse his impulse to create. I was the opposite.

This experience also gifted me two additional insights: being present during the act of creating is often more important than the outcome; and, by being mindful, your actions can become reverent. It is reverence that animates an object, making it beautiful to the beholder.

Raising creatives in the Andes

So, after my experience in the field, I found myself pondering how creativity was fostered in the Andes and whether we could apply lessons and insights from their world to help raise healthy creatives.

While conducting research I discovered that creativity was and continues to be a vital and sacred part of life in the Central Andes. Inkan mythology, as recorded by European officials and notaries but recited orally over many generations, reprised how their creator god, Wiraqocha, created the world from his bare hands: he moulded, carved and painted human bodies and animated them by giving them language and clothes (see Juan de Betanzos 1996, for example). These stories not only recorded important events and achievements of ancestors but also gifted the following generations knowledge and wisdom that they could harness to live respectful and creative lives (see Dunbar 2015).

Thanks to anthropological research carried out in more remote parts of the Andes, we are discovering how these communities are raising young curious and out-of-the-box thinkers, who are excelling academically, particularly in subjects, such as mathematics and science. Their achievements are particularly remarkable, as anthropologist Inge Bolin highlights, for when compared to our modern standards, they come from impoverished pastoral communities. Bolin’s study of Chillihuani well demonstrates this. Chillihuani is located at high-altitude, between 3,500 and 4,000 metres above sea level, in Peru. It is impossible to romanticise the everyday life of the community: the chillihuanos have suffered many major hardships and setbacks, some caused by extreme climatic conditions. Meanwhile, they have access to very basic amenities; only recently has electricity been introduced and covers only a small section of the village, for example. Children face periods of hunger, disease and the possibility of early death.

Socialisation within Chillihuani encourages children to develop gradually practical and technical skills that will enable them to fulfil their responsibilities and obligations later as an adult. As Bolin notes, the community maintains a ‘culture of respect’; they raise children emphasising their core values of respect, collaboration and generosity. Without supporting one another, the community’s way of life would not be sustainable.

Unstructured play and experimentation is encouraged but is not treated as completely separate from work. From a young age, children help around the house and tend to herds of alpacas, taking them to nearby pastures. They learn to identify all aspects of the landscape and develop an understanding of the natural processes of life. As manufactured toys and other resources aren’t available to them, they pass hours making figurines and play scenes from grass, clay and stone as well as playing games. Meanwhile, Bolin also noted, elders encourage children to create their own music and poetry.

At the time Bolin was conducting her research, the children started school at the age of eight. In order to attend, children walked more than two hours each way. Once at school, they had to articulate themselves in Spanish, their second language.
Despite their challenges, as Bolin emphasises, the children of Chillihuani develop caring relationships with others and learn to respect all aspects of life. They are also encouraged to develop their unique traits as people.

Adopting the Andean Way in the Modern World

Reflecting on the Andean view of creativity serves to remind us how important it is to cultivate cultures of respect in our modern world. When I returned home from Peru to complete my PhD, I first started by developing a more respectful relationship with creativity. Over the past five years, I have devoted much time learning new practices, which build my self-discipline and confidence, but also support my long-term creative aspirations and dreams: for example, I write daily. I know that with each sentence I write, I am not just practising my craft but I am also actively working towards the dream of writing and publishing books. Meanwhile, slowly but surely, my once well-defined boundaries between work and play have dissolved.

We also need to build cultures of respect at home, school and at work. For children, a respectful environment is one where they can develop their personality, while also learning to regard others and their landscape. To help them become confident learners, I think it is important for educators to maintain curiosity and wonder. I find when I am able to be curious, I uncover invaluable clues about the way a child thinks, learns and creates. My aim is then to help them develop their innate talents. For example, quite a few times I have discovered young aspiring writers, simply by asking them what books and films they like. Once I give them the opportunity to learn how to make their own book, comic or film, I watch as their aura of confidence grows. It is magical! Meanwhile, at the craft table, I encourage play and experimentation, while helping children foster a healthy mindset about creativity. I teach children to do as Diego does: don’t overthink, just do. Follow the creative impulse. When a child becomes their own art critic and wants to throw their work away, I remind them that there are no mistakes in art. It may not have turned out the way they imagined or wanted to, but it is one more step in their learning.Meanwhile, studies show that when workplaces adopt respect as a core value, innovation and creativity increases. As Peter Chadwick reports, these successful workplaces are where employees are encouraged to appreciate and listen to others, as well as provide constructive feedback in a positive way.

Notes on Sources

If you are interested in learning more about education in the Andes, I recommend you read Inge Bolin’s books, Rituals of Respect, and Growing in a Culture of Respect in the Andes, published by the University of Texas Press. The Orchid and the Dandelion is also a great read for highlighting the importance of environment when raising highly-sensitive children.

If you are interested in Inka history and mythology, I highly recommend the Narratives of the Incas by Juan de Betanzos, translated into English by Roland Hamilton and Dana Buchanan. If you are interested in learning more about my PhD dissertation on the Inka, please message me.

The names of my friends and colleagues used in this story are fictional in order to protect their identity and privacy.

This story was based on a blog posted on Ancient Explorer on 7 December 2018.

Photo Credit: Ben Ostrower

This was originally posted on www.medium.com on the 24 June 2019.

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