As an educator and writer, I look to creativity as one of my most important tools. I know that without a dose of creativity my lectures and writings will be dull and uninspiring. Yet, creativity isn’t something I can find on a shelf or summon as needed. Even with all the wonders of the internet, there’s no website I can use to tap into the wellspring of creative thinking.
But I have found a place that helps me and inspires me when I feel stuck or stymied or need some new ideas. I go to nature. At times, I’ll get up from my desk and take a walk. At other times, I just pause and look out the window to take in the view of the sky and the trees in our yard.
I know there are others, too, who look to nature to nurture their creativity. I currently work as curator of an online research library promoting the reconnection of children with nature. These studies show that time in nature promotes more creative play, increased problem-solving skills, and improved attention. Even images of nature can lead to more creative thinking.
One study found that high school students performed more creatively on a drawing task when images of natural environments were displayed before and during the drawing exercise. Another study, focusing on younger children, shows that play behaviors in natural environments tend to be more social and creative than play on traditional playgrounds. This creativity is demonstrated, in part, through dramatic play where children often use natural “loose parts” (such as twigs, stones, pinecones, etc.) to represent something else. A small branch, for example, becomes a magic wand or water and leaves become a pot of soup.
Some studies speak to the restorative properties of nature as an opening to more creative thought. They use the term “attention restoration theory” in reference to the way time in nature can replenish or restore our capacity for directed attention. They also use the term “stress reduction theory” when referring to the impact of nature experience on reducing stress and thereby improving our ability to think creatively.
Here are several suggestions on how you might look to nature to enhance your own creativity.
- Take a “nature break.” Get outside and take a walk where you can experience the sights and sounds of nature. Daily tasks tend to take a toll on our ability to concentrate. They can also lead to a buildup of stress. Most of us know from experience that both attention fatigue and stress get in the way of creativity. Taking a nature break is one way to restore our ability to think creatively, but it’s not just about thinking—nature breaks also touch us at the feeling level. Don’t be surprised, if after a nature break, you’re not only thinking more clearly, you’re also inspired to express yourself in more creative ways.
- Display images of nature in your work space. Choose images depicting unpredictability and spaciousness, as studies have shown these aspects of nature to be especially effective in promoting creativity. Unpredictability in nature might be a small lake in a heavily-wooded area or wildflowers blooming along a rocky path.
- If possible, arrange to work in an area with windows providing views of nature. Ideally, what you see will offer variety over time – such as seasonal changes in leaves and flowers or bird activity around a bird bath or bird feeder.
- Look for ways to deepen your connections with nature. In addition to spending more time in nature, you can read and write nature-related poetry, keep a nature journal, do some nature photography, and sketch some nature drawings. You might also add more nature-related poses in your yoga practice. If you practice yoga, you’re probably already familiar with the tree pose and the mountain pose. Why not add an eagle or flamingo pose?
- Hold your meetings outdoors. Board rooms or conference rooms may not always be the most conducive for creative thinking. Try meeting outside instead and see how this impacts the dynamics and effectiveness of the meeting. You might even try this with family meetings. Just being outdoors and in touch with nature can lead to more creative ideas.