Fostering Creativity

'Explore the World'

Learning About Children and Creativity from Physicist Richard P. Feynman

By Abby Connors | Posted 4/25/15 | Updated 5/10/24

I’ve learned a great deal about teaching creative thinking to young children from a man who wasn’t an artist, but a scientist. Richard P. Feynman was one of the greatest physicists of our time. He was well known for his work in quantum mechanics, subatomic particles, and quantum electrodynamics, and I don’t have the slightest clue as to what these are. His research earned him a Nobel Prize, but that’s not what influenced me. More meaningful to me is his approach to learning and teaching. The very readable and enjoyable semi-autobiographical books, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” made a deep impression on my thinking about the way I work with young children. I’d like to share some quotations from Dr. Feynman which have especially inspired me.

“Don't be afraid. Do what you get the most pleasure from… If you have any talent, or any occupation that delights you, do it, and do it to the hilt!” —Richard P. Feynman

Young children are natural pleasure-seekers, and I’m not referring only to their love of toys and candy! They love to dance, and sing, and build things, and pretend, and tell stories. The greatest thing about their creative energy, and something we can all learn from, is their utter lack of fear. They’re not afraid of not being perfect, of not being praised, of “doing it wrong,” of looking foolish… until they learn to be afraid of these things, from adults. It’s so important to accept children’s creative expression, even if it seems unconventional or just plain “wrong” to us. They’re each following their own path to learning and becoming – and they need our encouragement and support along the way.

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” —Richard P. Feynman

I love this quote because it’s so delightfully opposite of our conventional view of education. Our culture promotes a highly disciplined approach to learning – quietly listening to teachers, completing homework assignments, and judging our progress by test after test after test. Knowledge is viewed as a static bunch of facts to be memorized unquestioningly. And worst of all, children are actually discouraged from learning in an “original manner.” On their own, children display endless, relentless curiosity about the world around them. Only in school do they “learn” that all subjects are meant to be studied in a certain way, in certain steps, at a certain pace. The conventional educational system often unwittingly squashes the curiosity that leads to a true love of learning.

“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish.” —Richard P. Feynman

You might think that young children are too young to internalize the demands and expectations of adults. But parents and teachers have a huge influence on young children, and however well-meaning it may be, it can hold children back from blazing their own trails, exploring what interests them the most. By first grade, many children can tell you who’s the “smartest” kid in the class, or who’d the “best artist.” I even heard of a seven-year-old saying he planned to go to Harvard! Something tells me he didn’t come up with that idea by himself. Harvard is a great goal for some children, but not for every child! And certainly at seven, a child needs a freer, more expansive view of the possibilities out there.

When our creativity gets tied up with others’ expectations, it sinks like a stone.

As teachers, we can help by focusing on what children can do, not what they are. There’s no need to label children as talented or untalented, or to predict careers for them. Let’s allow each child to develop in her own way.

“Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.” —Richard P. Feynman

One of the remarkable things about young children, that constantly inspires me, is their endless ability to get fascinated by what we adults might consider trivial – a spider’s progress along a wall, for instance, or how pebbles splash when you drop them in a puddle. All too soon, people learn to stop being curious about such things. “Been there, done that.” We think we know all about spiders and puddles, but of course we don’t. Scientists find out new things about them every day. And painters, dancers, actors, musicians, writers, and architects explore and interpret these things in new and original ways every day. We need to encourage children to keep exploring, keep wondering, keep asking questions. Our own curiosity is what makes us learn. It draws us on to more and more knowledge and understanding.

Richard Feynman was an extraordinary scientist and an exceptional teacher, and I believe his most amazing discoveries and theories came from his childlike sense of wonder and curiosity. We have a great opportunity to help young children keep their own wonder and curiosity alive.

Next: Robert Henri's 'The Art Spirit'

©2015 Abigail Flesch Connors. All rights reserved.