Ways of Promoting a Creative Mindset Using Email

The human mind is capable of astonishing creative feats, but only after it becomes aware of its own creative capabilities. In the world of cognitive psychology, more and more is being written about creativity as a skill that can be consciously developed and enhanced.

In the past few months I've become intrigued at how the creative mindset can be promoted via email exchanges with my elementary-aged nieces and nephew.

How It All Started

It all started a year or two ago when my nieces and nephew in New Jersey and New York state got online. We soon started exchanging world scambles for each other to try to figure out. I would check my email to find a single word email message: "docul." I'd send back my guess, "cloud," and within the same email message send them a word scambles (also known as anagrams) to figure out. I was delighted when my first grade niece, Shoshana, would dash off an email message to me almost every day.

Those simple one word anagrams grew to the exchanging of riddles and other kinds of questions. One day I sent the kids an entire sentence where each of the words had been scrambled: "het tebs singth ni file rae efre."

Soon I got to thinking that it would be fun to send my nieces and nephews some of the children's stories I like to write. So every month or two I'll send them something whimsical that came to mind. Sometimes I'll send one of the children's stories I've written. Sometimes I'll send wacky thoughts on whatever topic happens to jump to mind that day.

I also get a big kick out of reacting whimsically to whatever comments they send me. For instance, a few months ago my niece, Shoshana, send me an email message whose entire contents said, "yesturday i got a pet bird!"

My response was: "Wow, Shoshana, you got a pet bird? In case the bird is an ostrich, this is what I'd recommend you do: 1) Walk the ostrich at least 25 miles each day. 2) Give the ostrich at least fifteen pounds of food, three times a day. 3) Be sure to take your ostrich to visit other ostriches at least once a week, even if you have to drive over a hundred miles with the ostrich squawking in the back seat."

Shoshana replied, "Uncle Phil! You're so silly. I got a parakeet."

Seeing the Creative Temperament in Action

I caught a glimpse of the creative mindset the other evening when I was visiting the family of my friends Bernie and Paula Benson. After dinner we were chatting about their family's ice skating escapades. I made the casual remark that in Canada many kids learn to ice skate before they learn to walk. Lisa, in fifth grade, jumped in saying, "Well if the kids learn to ice-skate before they learn to walk, then their parents probably take them to a walking rink to teach them to walk." Latching on to the whimsy of the moment, Lisa's dad, Bernie jumped in with the comment, "Yes, and those people who don't own shoes can rent them at the walking rink." In a minute everyone around the table was pitching in with their own comments about "Canadian walking rinks," hooting with laughter as the scenario became more and more far-fetched.

This was a typical moment in the Benson household where zanyness, jokes, whimsy, pranks, and improvised drama are part of their everyday activities.

Can that mindset be transmitted via email? Sure it can. Here's a copy of a recent story I sent my nieces and nephews. I was prompted to write this short story after seeing the delight with which one of my neighbors was using his lawn edge trimmer. It took me all of fifteen minutes to write this story. A minute later the story had been dispatched to my nieces and nephew.

The Story of Tommy Trimble

Tommy Trimble loved to trim things. Twice a month he would walk over to the barber's shop to have his hair trimmed. He would regularly trim the hedges in his yard, trim his moustache every morning, and he wouldn't think of letting a week go by without trimming his fingernails.

Tommy lived in Washington DC and worked for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Every day at OMB he would trim the national budget. At Christmas time, there is nothing he enjoyed more than trimming his family's Christmas tree.

So when Tommy went to the hardware store to buy an edge trimmer for his lawn, he sort of suspected that this new purchase might lead to things that could get out of control. At the store, the salesperson explained to him about the benefits and drawbacks of electric and gas trimmers.

He was very tempted to buy a cordless electric edge trimmer because the price was less than the gas powered edge trimmers. Whenever possible, Tommy tried his best to trim off anything from the price of the products he bought.

But then the salesperson explained that the gas powered edge trimmer could trim for much longer than the cordless electric trimmer. From Tommy's point of view, more trimming was always better than less trimming. So he decided to buy the gas powered edge trimmer.

Tommy got back from the store late Saturday morning. Nobody has seen him since then.

One thing that is for sure is that he finished doing all the trimming of lawn edges at his house. No lawn anywhere could possibly look any trimmer.

And Tommy's next door neighbor's lawn has freshly trimmed edges, something their lawn never had before. And all down the street where he lived, lawns were looking exceptionally trim and tidy. At the small park two blocks from his house, all the lawn edges were nicely trimmed.

The thing that really tipped people off was that the grass all along the nearby avenue was neatly trimmed. And the avenue near Tommy's house led directly to an interstate highway.

Not more than twenty miles down this highway was a national park, with grass galore that needed trimming. That is where Tommy's wife eventually found him, trimming grass that was growing at the bottom of a tall redwood tree.

"Honey, this trimmer really works great," Tommy said with some enthusiasm. "I can see that," Tommy's wife said with an amused sigh.

"Come on home, Tommy, dear," his wife said. "There's lots more trimming we need to do at home." "Okay, I'll go back home. But only if there's more trimming I can do..."

Storytelling begets storytelling. If by sending stories to my nieces and nephew I can help them think of themselves as storytellers, then they will develop a knack at visualizing the stories that suggest themselves in their own lives.

Being able to dispatch a new story moments after creating it certainly is a creativity inducing thing. I might not be inclined to write stories if it weren't for the ease with which I can send them online.

The Creative Temperament

All human beings have self-conceptions about their creative powers. These self-conceptions can easily be strengthened, enhanced, and stimulated. I've come to learn that email communications can be an ideal way of nurturing the budding creative spirit that lies within all of us.

I visit with my nieces and nephew in person two or three times each year. But we've tremendously enjoyed interacting with one another online in between those visits. For me, email has always been a tool that's perfectly suited for conveying a playful mindset.

The way we look at the world, and think of ourselves, is reflected in the kinds of things we say to one another. With a little forethought and creativity we can use email to say the kinds of things that can help budding creative spirits to think in a playful way about the world around them. Creativity skills can indeed be taught, and email might be one of the most powerful tools for doing so.

Phil Shapiro

The author is a freelance writer and educational technology consultant. He can be reached at pshapiro@his.com and http://www.his.com/~pshapiro/

A collection of the children's stories he's written can be found on the children's stories section of his web page.

Excerpts from the other 31 think-piece essays in the book, "Thinking About Online Communications," have been posted on the web.

Recommended Books on Creativity Topics

Von Oech, Roger, A Whack On the Side of the Head

Von Oech, Roger, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants

Brockman, John, editor, Creativity

Gardner, Howard, Creating Minds

Osborn, Alex, You Creative Power

De Bono, Edward, Lateral Thinking

De Bono, Edward, Serious Creativity

Monroe, Russell R., Creative Brainstorms

Boden, Margaret A., The Creative Mind

Adams, James L., The Care and Feeding of Ideas

Perkins, David N., The Mind's Best Work

Glover, John A., Becoming a More Creative Person

Cohen, Daniel, Creativity, What Is It?

Samuels, Mike, Seeing With the Mind's Eye

Crawford, Robert Platt, The Techniques of Creative Thinking

Ghiselin, Brewster, The Creative Process

Wujec, Tom, Pumping Ions

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

Kao, John, Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity

Lehane, Stephen, The Creative Child : How to Encourage the Natural Creativity of Your Preschooler

Richards, Regina, Learn: Playful Techniques to Accelerate Learning

Schrage, Michael, No More Teams: Mastering the Dynamics of Creative Collaboration

Amabile, Teresa, Growing up Creative: Nurturing a Lifetime of Creativity

Many of the above books can be found in your local public libraries or bookstores. The last two books on this list are two of my favorite books on creativity topics. Reviews of these books can be found in the book reviews section of my web page.

Return to Phil's web page.