Nature, Technology, and Contemporary Creativity: From the “Last Child in the Woods Movement” to the “365 Project”
A few years ago Newsweek declared a creativity crisis in America with public education largely to blame for this death of creative thinking. They dedicated an entire issue to the topic. I recognize that they were not just talking about visual arts classes, but about creative thinking in all subjects. Yet, the cover of the magazine was an attractive American flag made of red, white, and blue crayons and most of the graphics throughout the issue were other art supplies. It felt a little like an attack. I began reflecting about just how creative the art classes I teach are when compared to the middle school art classes I took three decades ago. Is there really a creativity crisis? As I investigated, I discovered some competing ideas. On one hand there were many who believed technology is an ideal vehicle for fostering creativity. On the other, there were those who saw nature as a primary inspiration for creativity and technology as an enemy of creative development.
In brief I would like to share an example from each of these competing ideas about creative development and examples of middle school student art inspired in response to each. For those who believe nature a superior approach to creative development, I used the work of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods (2005) and The Nature Principle (2011). To illustrate one way technology can foster creative development, I used the concept of the “365 project” found on various social media.
Who is Richard Louv?
Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods was a New York Times best seller and a nominee for best nonfiction book of the year. His more recent work, The Nature Principle, also received critical acclaim including awards from the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and the Nature Conservancy. To be clear, Louv never directly addresses visual arts, however, he does address creativity and he uses many arguments to advocate for his position that arts educators will find reminiscing of their early childhood development and creativity course work. Louv links the importance of “play” and “open-ended projects” to nature and creativity development. As Louv explains: “Time in nature is not leisure time; it's an essential investment in our children's health…Children need experiences with nature just as they need sleep or healthy food.”
Last Child begins by considering historical figures (Ben Franklin for example), and their experiences in nature as well as the special relationship to “the land” that is described as an essential part of the American cultural identity. Later, the Last Child and The Nature Principle build a case for exploring the impact of nature experiences on attention disorders and on wider aspects of children’s health through a variety of case studies and examples, which strive to explain exactly what nature offers children, namely: (1) emotional well being, (2)spiritual sense of perspective, (3)observation skills, (4) cognitive abilities, (5) creativity, (6) healthy risk taking, (7) stress management, (8) increased attention, and (9) lowered instances of depression. Louv builds a strong case connecting nature and creativity by juxtaposing the many ways nature involves all of the senses, and then contrasts the multiple modalities of nature with technologies like television and computers which are mainly dual-sensory, appealing only to the eyes and ears.
Louv’s Concepts in Action in My Classroom
After discovering Louv’s work I began seeking opportunities to bring nature experiences into the art curriculum. When I was in middle school we often went outside the classroom to draw- more often to draw the inside and outside of the school building in an effort to learn one- and two-point perspective. For my classes I actually wanted to go outside, to nature. The “Walk-in-the-Woods Map Project” for example, takes the art class outside to draw from observation and to gather objects for still life. The class goes on a winding walk around our school building looking for nature. At one stop they must zoom in on tiny details. At the next, they will draw from a distance. At every stop the challenge is to be the only person drawing that subject. On the walk I take digital pictures of various flora and fauna. At the end of the walk students soak the drawing in tea to give it a vintage feel. The drawing is finished in the classroom using the photos, as well as, plant and insect specimens. Images are connected like an illustrated map with pathways connecting the images from each stop. More recently we have been experimenting with taking a creative homemade paint set with us on the walk. These sets are made from a tin case, such as an Altoids box, using Sculpey clay, pressed with an AAA battery top, baked, then filled with watercolor from a tube. We have also made our own paints from natural materials. We cut up beets and cooked them in a crock pot for 2 days then added a little bit of alcohol for a brilliant red. We made green from Kudzu, Pink from Beauty Berry, and Brown from Walnuts using the same technique.
In 2007, artist Noah Scalin came up with an ingenious idea: he cut a skull out of orange paper and posted it on his blog with the note, "I'm making a skull image every day for a year." His year-long art project became an award-winning internet sensation that resulted in the book Skulls, as well as landing him in the New York Times and on the Martha Stewart Show. The concept of a "365 method" is simple, but inspired: Choose a theme or medium, and then make something every day for a year. Scalin was not the first to attempt a 365 project. In fact, it’s not entirely clear who the first was.
The popularity of 365 projects has grown exponentially. You Tube now has a dedicated channel with more than 100,000 different attempts. Flicker also has dedicated space for 365 photo projects. Scalin is the author of a creativity journal, which invites others to start a 365 project. An essential element is the public sharing of results; it serves as both a source of encouragement and a method for accountability.
What is a 365 Project?
Some notable 365 projects that you may already be familiar with include The Julia /Julie Project and No Impact Man—both of which became Hollywood films. For the The Julia /Julie Project, a journalist named Julie Powell took on the challenges of cooking something from Julia Child’s cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking everyday with the goal of cooking every recipe in the book and sharing the experience through internet blogs. Colin Beavan, a.k.a No Impact Man, decided to completely eliminate his personal impact on the environment for one year adding a new pro-environmental action each day. These actions ranged from eating vegetarian, to buying only local food, to eventually turning off the refrigerator. It also meant not using elevators, television, cars, busses, or airplanes. He and his family also eventually gave up all non-natural cleaning products, electricity, and buying anything new. A little less well known, but equally inspiring was Sheena Matheiken, The Uniform Project, which explored how many ways one person can wear a single dress (or rather, seven carbon copies of the same dress). This launching point for 365 distinct looks, one for every day of the year was the ultimate exercise in sustainable fashion. Money saved and raised by this unique experiment was donated to a school in the developing world to give measurable impact on the lives of others. In this case it was $10,000 or the cost of 27 children’s education in India for 1 year.
365 Concepts in Action in My Classroom
I described a number of 365 projects to my students and visited a number of blogs and u-tube videos about 365s with my students. I then gave each students a chicken ring that would be used to bind together the 46 creative items they would make over the quarter- one for each day of class. Chicken rings are plastic rings used in industry and by naturalist to identify and track birds; they are also marketed to educators to bind books. Students keep all warm up assignments, preparatory drawings and even the best part of “projects gone bad” and bound them on one ring. Some projects were done “on-your-own. Others were whole group “quick-challenges” that were directed but open-ended. In one 365 challenge, for example, students were given an index card with a slit in it, shown how to make that a “pop up” and asked to make it into the most creative thing they could in 4 minutes or less (including coloring it in!). No two could be alike, so thinking outside the box was essential.
All major assignments created in art are also uploaded to the student’s online portfolio. Students are given the opportunity (and extra credit) for loading their 365 works to their page. These uploads appear differently than work loaded by the teacher. In this picture you can see that Leila has uploaded 20 drawings she did as part of her daily creativity project.
-Author Richard Louv’s Website includes information on his many books, videos of Louv talking about Nature Deficit Disorder and the importance of nature for both children and adults, and information about the author’s upcoming appearances.
-Sheena Matheiken’s, The Uniform Project is chronicled at:
-No Impact Man, Colin Beavan’s story can be found at:
What Do You Think?
How important is nature to making art with students? Does technology foster creativity or inhibit creativity? What specifics can you share in defense of your answers?
-Dr. Aimee Burgamy