Travel if you want to be more creative. ...but what if you can't?

Glacial Lake Moraine in the mountains of Canada

Glacial Lake Moraine in the mountains of Canada

Creative geniuses from all fields seem to know something about travel that made it indispensable to their work. Travel boosted their creativity by changing their thinking. Hemingway wrote while in Cuba, and Gauguin painted in Tahiti; Mark Twain wrote his only best selling book on board a ship. In the 1940s, on a Greyhound bus in the middle of the night in Kansas, Princeton physics researcher Freeman Dyson cracked the problem of quantum electrodynamics - the theory of radiation and atoms – that others had been trying to solve for years.

For many creative giants, traveling resulted in discoveries that defined their lives – and careers.

Scientific studies now confirm the long suspected boost that travel makes to the flow of creative thinking. “Neuroscientists and psychologists have been studying the connection between travel and creativity, and it turns out, travel does wonders for the creative mind,” said Matt Hershberger in his blog “Six Things Science Tells Us About Travel and Creativity”. He quotes research from Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia, and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a psychology professor at USC, that prove these six things:

  1. Travel stimulates the mind in ways being at home doesn’t.
  2. Travel makes you more open-minded — in more ways than one.
  3. Time abroad correlates with creative output.
  4. The most creative people are the ones who immerse themselves in other cultures.
  5. Travel helps you identify who you are.
  6. Travel makes you less racist, and being racist makes you less creative.  

Lile Jia, a PhD graduate student in psychology at Indiana University, has further proven even the perception of distance is an enhancement to creative thought.  Everyday habits and routines constrain mental thinking, according to psychologists like Jia who study creativity. Spending time in different environments and cultures actually broadens and opens up thinking, as unused neural networks within the brain fire and respond – in ways they wouldn’t respond if sitting back in the office or driving the same road home each evening.

With all this proof, what if you can’t or don’t travel?

Rice terraces in Yuangyang, China

Rice terraces in Yuangyang, China

This is great motivation to finally splurge on that international trip you’ve been considering, but an adventure abroad is obviously not a possibility for everyone, especially many of our students whose family finances and situations prevent them from even dreaming of travel.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Research says you and your students can still reap creative benefits by making subtle changes in your daily lives. You can't take your students with you as you travel the world, but you can take them on virtual trips as you explore different cultures together.

Lesson plans on travel give you the opportunity to delve into topics like culture, geography and even math as you plan travel expenses. With a travel theme, you can dig into literature, help students embrace their inner artist and give them a love and passion for a new and exciting location. Whether you are digging into a country for a detailed unit study, want to diverge from the curriculum for some fun travel-themed lessons or simply want to give your students a love for travel, here is a list of resources and activities that can help you embrace travel without leaving the four walls of your classroom, or they leaving their apartments.

Sites like “Exploring the World in Your Classroom” list over 40 groups, organizations and educational packages that help teachers plan “travels” for their students. “By Foot, Bike or More: How to Explore Your Neighborhood” gives ten ways for teachers to conduct small group travels around your school and near community.  

“50 Ways to Have An Adventure Without Leaving Town” (How to Explore Your Neighborhood) by SarahStarrs.com lists 50 unique ways to try and create the newness of travel in a familiar place.

Amazing Ways Teachers Use Their Travel Experiences In the Classroom” at encourages educators that can travel to share their experiences with their students and shares methodologies to use in the classroom.

Teachers I know who do travel offer these suggestions for making even your students “world travelers” without leaving home and therefore, more creative.

  1. If you travel share your photos to show ecosystems, customs, dress, etc. Students can put likenesses and differences to their culture on post-it notes to go on a large world map in the room or hallway.
  2. Bring artifacts you have collected to your classroom. Have students try to guess their use and compare and contrast to things used in their lives.
  3. From your travels have a word a day that you introduce and try to have students use it in as many conversations as possible.  
  4. Take language lessons by using a translator app on the computer or iPhone.
  5. If you know another language, find someone to practice speaking it to in conversation.  If they know another language, exchange phrases.
  6. Challenge yourself and your students to notice something new about your/their surroundings every day and draw a picture of it or keep a running list of ‘world observations’.
  7. Read all about the history of the place they’d most like to visit, or use Google Maps to find a new place in the world each day. Learn one unusual thing about that place and put it in a travel journal or on a world map.
  8. Write a story set somewhere else where they’re the hero of their own action adventure fantasy. Research that place for realistic details.
  9. Play “I Spy” in usually boring places at home and at school, to try and see new things.
  10. Find pen pals in another part of the world and correspond or, even better, Facetime.

Most of my students, many who lived in apartments in government subsidized housing, will never travel the world unless their life cycle of poverty is broken. Until then, my job was to teach them to learn to truly see what is around them, to realize its unique beauty, and hopefully appreciate it.

Each summer, I gave all my students homemade sketchbooks, a dollar store mechanical pencil, and a cardboard viewfinder. I make suggested assignments to find and draw: family members and neighbors, someone old, someone young, unusual clothing, the steps and stair railings, hands and feet, toys, trash, manhole covers and drains, unusual textures, highlights and shadows, brick walls from an unusual perspective, security lighting, reflections, sunlight and moonlight, plants and trees on the grounds of their apartments, pets and even animals like the rats in the trash bins, anything in their worlds. Those with iPhones and computers, I encouraged to send me photos of the things they had found in their world and I sent them those I found in mine or from my travels. Last summer I set up a photo-sharing account on Flikr.com. When school started, a thousand conversations about what we saw on our “travels” were waiting to be shared. I hope I built relationships for life, and gave my students the chance to see the unique place they live, and a longing to see the world outside their apartments.

We all need to learn to see our world with artists’ eyes...like we have traveled the world to appreciate our home, better.   

Everyartist has in this issue of Everyartist Everyday a " 115 Drawing Ideas for Teachers and Students to Share Over the Summer" list that can be used for keeping the creative spark kindled over the summer vacation months.