How to think like a child

Letting go of adult inhibitions can free up our creativity and boost our wellbeing, says Lena Corner

Picasso once said: "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist after he grows up." He certainly had a point, and now researchers at North Dakota State University think they may have found an answer. Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson, who carried out a US study into adult creativity have discovered that the more an adult acts and thinks like a child, the more imaginative he or she becomes. "Thinking like a child is entirely possible for adults," says Robinson. "And we found that doing so is beneficial for certain types of creative activities."

While we're not suggesting you regress into making loud personal comments about people on the bus, or screaming when you want something, there are many things you can do to tap into your inner child. You could try not taking yourself too seriously, for one. Or be spontaneous, inquisitive and generally more chaotic. Or simply take life more slowly – enjoy a nice long bath instead of darting in and out of the shower. "It's all about finding anything we can do to relax ourselves," says chartered psychologist Mark Millard. "Most of the time most of us are too tight. We all need loosening up."

So if your creative impulses haven't dried up or been beaten out of you entirely, here's a handy guide to bringing out the best in yourself by behaving like a small child.



Lose your cool

Ever watched a child dance or sing? As the old adage by American author William Purkey goes: "You've gotta dance like there's nobody watching ... sing like there's nobody listening." This is exactly how children do it. It may not be in time to the music, and it may not look cool, but it's as spontaneous and as free as it gets. "Children have an enormous capacity to be uninhibited," says chartered counselling psychologist Martin Lloyd-Elliott. "Adults always thrive when they have at least a few areas of their life in which they allow themselves to let go completely."

This is about more than just not taking ourselves too seriously, says Michael Dunn, senior lecturer in business psychology at the University of Derby. He cites new research done into the way the brains of jazz musicians work which suggests that lowering our barriers can be highly productive. "Scientists discovered that when jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow," he says. "And in doing this they are coming to the task more like a child would."



Have a bad idea

How many of us have sat around in meetings with a half-decent idea in our head, yet not spoken up because we're worried people will laugh? We've all learned through bitter experience that if you say the wrong thing or express a dodgy idea, then chances are you'll be ridiculed.

"Children are much less inhibited about saying the things that might not be right," says Dunn. "To be creative, what we are looking for is not one idea but dozens of ideas – some good, some average and some rubbish. We need to go through the wrong stuff to get to the right stuff. So no matter how wild and wacky an idea is, we need to learn to suspend judgement and get it to the table. Kids aren't bothered about doing that, they have no fear of saying what they think." In other words stop being so paranoid and speak up. As Einstein once said: "If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it."



Learn to dawdle

If you've ever tried to get a child to school in a hurry you'll know: short of dragging them down the street, it's impossible. They don't seem to have a speed setting other than extremely slow. Do as they do and drag your feet whenever possible, stop to gaze into any shop window you fancy and miss the crossing when the green man comes up. "Going for a walk, letting our minds wander and having a really good rummage around in our mind is a very good problem-solving technique," says chartered psychologist Mark Millard. "Don't go out with blinkers on. Walk around and see what captures your attention. It's a great way to help us bust out of our usual mindset." Which is common sense: it's about slowing down and giving ourselves more time to see things.



Be bored

Many of us can remember issuing that pitiful lament: "Mum! I'm bored." Well, these days we just don't say it enough. When we're not working, we're doing our chores, watching TV, or Facebooking our friends, we just don't allow ourselves any proper down time any more. The psychoanalyst Dr James Hollis says all of us should "create space to invoke possibility". But it seems we have forgotten how.

"We need to make time and space to daydream, to meditate, to let our minds wander – to allow ourselves to be bored," says Lloyd-Elliott. "Most people seem to be allergic to stillness and silence and dreaded boredom. They have to fiddle with their phones, games consoles and laptops rather than just be. Too much human doing and not enough human being. Children embrace dead space and time and fill it with imagination. The greatest creative ideas often emerge from the gloom of boredom."



Break the rules

We have all had it drummed into us that there is one correct answer to everything and it's wrong to make a mistake. Children have no idea about these rules; they are chaotic and willing to search for many different answers. "We all got educated into a fixed way of looking at the world," says Millard, "which is really very good if you are a banker an accountant or someone who drives a car. But it's definitely very unhelpful if you are faced with a problem where you need to be more imaginative." Dunn also believes we accept convention too readily. "My students, for example, sit in the same seat for class week after week, for no reason other than that's what they have always done," he says.

"Try folding your arms with the other arm on top – it feels wrong. Without making the effort to mentally suspend any rules or conventions, creative output will be limited. "Children don't know theories," he concludes. "Their brains are not conditioned. They haven't learned the shoulds and have-tos of the adult world. They don't know what's possible and what's not. How many adults would crawl around the floor trying to pick up a sunbeam?"



Get yourself a babysitter

Not literally of course, but putting someone else in charge, even if just for a little while, can be hugely beneficial. There's a phase in psychology known as "executive control", which is all about how we are driven by deadlines, chores, work or whatever else, which means our attention is narrowed and so therefore able to be less creative. "We believe," says Millard, "that if we don't attend to these pressing issues something dreadful is going to happen." When we are stressed we limit our focus and home in on the things that are troubling us. "We tend to ruminate and turn things over and over and over and get fixated, which is not very helpful if you are trying to come up with new ideas," Millard adds. So, try handing over the reins, let someone else take control and sit back and think of higher things.



Sit in the back seat of the car

Another way of relinquishing control. Aside from giving up all responsibility for map reading, CD-changing and arguing about directions, occupying the back seat gives you a different perspective on life – it's simply a way of looking at things from a new angle. "It's just about changing age-old habits and breaking out of routine," says Millard. "Occupying a different physical space does wonders to change your outlook." Strapped down like a child, you are pretty much powerless to do anything (even to get out if there are child locks), so you might as well relax and enjoy. There's no need to go as far as getting yourself a booster seat.



Get an imaginary friend

Bear with us here, it's not as crazy as it sounds. We're not suggesting you launch into elaborate role-play or incessant chatter to an invisible being, but visualisation exercises have long been a valuable tool for the psychologist.

"One technique that I often use is to get people to imagine that they are an adult holding the hand of a child who is frightened of the situation they are in. It enables them to see the situation more clearly," explains Dr Rachel Andrew, a chartered clinical psychologist.

I have a friend who, when faced with a tricky situation, always asks himself the question: what would David Bowie do? It isn't quite an imaginary friend, but it seems to work for him.

"What someone like this could provide for an adult is a sense of comfort, security, friendship and belonging," says Millard. "It could just be someone you can sound ideas off, or someone who pats you on the back and keeps you going, or who sees things in a slightly different way. Anything that encourages positivity or changes your perspective can be very helpful."

Just try not to chat to them too much while out you're in public.

Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

    £17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

    The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

    The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

    £30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there