Field Trip: Using Museums To Inspire Our Creative Brains

A few weeks ago, I profiled the creative confidence picture books of Peter H. Reynolds. Did you know that in addition to writing and illustrating his own books, Peter H. Reynolds also illustrates for other authors? He has done the illustrations for multiple picture books written by Susan Verde. One of those books is called The Museum. It’s a fantastic book that follows a young girl through her visit to an art museum. We see the way she feels as she moves from exhibit to exhibit, allowing the different art to change her moods, her thoughts, and even the way she moves her body.

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A visit to a museum can be a powerful lift for our creative confidence, providing ample inspiration and opportunities to exercise the creative centers of our brain. The obvious choice is an art museum, which allows us to study different forms of art, from ancient to modern, from two-dimensional to three-dimensional. An art museum surrounds us with color, emotion and scenes from the past. It’s bound to get your sketching fingers itching to grasp a pencil and work those muscles.

You may find the visuals enticing, but prefer to express the thoughts and feelings that are evoked through your words, rather than images. In that case, you can try jotting down words as you walk through the museum. This can be much like jabberwalking, which I discussed in my post on poetry. Writing down your observations and emotions while walking through an art museum can lead to fantastic poetry…or at the very least, some interesting introspection.

We are lucky enough to have an outdoor sculpture garden and walking path as part of our local art museum. This means that we get the chance to interact with the art. This can make for a fun experience that brings art out of the stuffy museum and right into the playground.

Art museums are not the only museums that can lead to creative exercise. Pretty much any kind of museum, from history to science, can inspire and lead to creative expression. We took a trip to a local science museum to see what kind of creative mischief we could get into. While exploring rooms filled with science and nature, we found plenty of opportunities to practice drawing, write poetry, brainstorm story ideas and work on photography. All of this in one museum!

When we came home from our museum day, we had new sketches to admire, inspiration for future art, a great brainstorm for a story idea about a turtle, fun photos and the beginnings of a poem or two. Not bad for an afternoon on the town.

Below, you’ll find our video all about our museum visits and the creative fun we had:

Don’t have a museum near you? Don’t despair! You can create a museum-like atmosphere right in your home. Dig through your book collection for drawing or writing inspiration. Check out some books from the library on famous paintings, sculpture, dinosaurs…anything you want. Lay the books out like a museum display and have fun looking through the pictures.

The internet is also a fantastic resource. Many museums offer views of some or all of their collections online. My daughter really enjoyed this virtual tour of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It makes you feel like you’re right there in the museum. You can take a look at some of the Louvre collection online, as well at the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These are just a few examples. The internet is full of resources to help provide that museum experience when a museum might be hard to come by.

An Intro to the Work of Neil Gaiman: Fortunately, the Milk

It’s time to take a look at another creatively inspirational author. Over the course of time and several posts, I’m going to highlight a few books written by Neil Gaiman. If you are already familiar with Neil Gaiman, you know that he is an author who deftly uses language, tells unique stories and challenges genre norms. He has written a wide variety of books, in theme, tone and audience. He is an author that one can follow from childhood into adulthood. His books are original and exceptionally creative. They are bound to provide great inspiration to those on a creative journey. Pick one…any one…and pay attention to the way he weaves a story, creates characters, and forms expectations, only to turn them upside down.

Since I have already written a few posts on storytelling, I figured I’d begin my look at Neil Gaiman’s writing by focusing on Fortunately, the Milk. This is a middle-grade chapter book that is perfect for elementary-aged kids. It is a ‘then-what-happened?’ kind of story that follows the crazy adventures of a dad who went out to get milk, and it’s a good thing he did. That milk saves the world.

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Fortunately, the Milk is not only a fun read, and an even better read-aloud, it is a great example of storytelling. The book models the storytelling methods of ‘then what?’ and ‘action-reaction’. (I made those terms up. They just sound right to me).

When the dad in the story finds himself on an alien spaceship, he chooses to open a door that says, ‘DO NOT OPEN FOR ANY REASON’. The choice to open the door is an action. The reaction is our ‘then what?’ moment. What happens when he opens that door? It could be anything. Whatever we can imagine, can happen. In this case, the dad falls into the sea and is rescued by pirates. But the question is…then what happens??

This is a fantastic type of storytelling to get anyone started. It focuses on the action, on the next thing to happen, rather than on character development. It’s great for kids to let their imaginations run wild, to focus more on the happenings in the story. Character development doesn’t have to take center stage. Storytelling can start with an idea and follow through with action.

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In Fortunately, the Milk, the children interrupt their father’s storytelling to ask questions, to ponder whether or not their dad actually encountered these crazy circumstances or if, perhaps, he’s just making it all up. The children want their dad’s story to make sense and sometimes, it just doesn’t. That’s another thing I love about this book, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t have to. It shows that the stories that flow from our imaginations can do just that…flow. We can allow whatever comes up to just be. We have the freedom to follow where the story leads us. Sometimes, we control the story. Sometimes, the story controls us. When the story is in control, it’s magic. Let it take over. See what happens.

In the end, the children in the story look around their kitchen and see inspiration for all the elements of their dad’s story. There’s a book, toys, a calendar on the wall, all related to ideas that popped up in the story. Was the story true? You decide. But don’t forget…inspiration is always around you. Be observant. Look for the story that’s right there in the room with you.


I highly recommend getting your hands on Fortunately, the Milk and reading it with your kids. Adults will likely enjoy the hilarity as well. I sure did, and so did my husband. After you’ve read it (or before, if you’d prefer) give these Gently Guided Activities, inspired by the book, a try:

Activity #1 Let’s give ‘then what?’ storytelling a try! We’ll try telling this story aloud. Start with a simple premise. For example, a boy walked down the street and saw his neighbor’s dog flying. Then what? What does the boy do? What does the dog do? Is anything else strange happening? After each new element, ask the question ‘Then what?’ or ‘What happens next?’ See how far your story can take you. Try looking around your own space or out your own window for inspiration. Ideas are everywhere!

Activity #2 For this one, let’s write a story down. Try writing about yourself from the first-person perspective (I did this.. I did that…). Start with a normal event and then make it extraordinary. ‘My ball rolled down the street. I ran to get it. On my way back, you’ll never guess what happened…’ Make it crazy and unbelievable. Let your imagination go wild. It can be short and sweet or an epic adventure. Don’t forget to ask yourself ‘Then what?’ whenever you get stuck.

Activity #3 If you find it too hard to start from scratch, take a few elements from Fortunately, the Milk and weave your own story. Throw your own character into the mix and see what happens. Maybe you’d like your character to encounter aliens in a hot air balloon or dinosaurs on a pirate ship. What would happen in your version of the story?

Activity #4 Don’t feel like storytelling or writing? Take one of the fantastical ideas from the book or imagine a crazy scenario of your own. Sketch it out. Rather than telling the story through words, tell it using a picture, or a series of pictures. Words are only one way to tell a story. Have fun and let your story colorfully come to life.

If you’re interested, watch me and my daughter give ‘Then What?’ storytelling a try in the video below:

If you read the book or try the activities, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear about your creative adventures!

Storytelling With Children: Lessons from the Pre-K Crowd

Last week, I had the joy of heading to a local preschool to share some of my creative lessons and energy (the same preschool my daughter attended five years ago, which is always super fun). I was invited to speak with a room full of eager five-year-olds on the topic of books and writing. While I may not be a published author, I have written and illustrated several books for my daughter, I love writing, and I’m certainly no stranger to the concepts of idea generation, creativity and encouragement.

I enjoyed talking with the kids about writing. I read one of my own books and showed them the process of illustration. They kept me on my toes with questions, both related and completely divergent from the topic-at-hand. The best part, though, always comes after the presentation. When I finish talking to everyone as a group, and giving them a general picture of storytelling, that’s when I work with the kids in a small group. That’s when I get to talk to them one-on-one. Together, we create characters and take them on a fantastic journey.

Creating a character or story out of thin air is a difficult task for most people, especially when there isn’t much time. I always try to get kids to create a character that is new, fresh from their imagination. Some children find this easy, immediately locking on to a character type, drawing it and giving it a name. Not used to storytelling, others rely on characters they have seen in stories before, generally from books or television.

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So, what if a child just refuses to come up with an original character? Is all lost in the creative exercise? Nope. Creativity is never ‘all or nothing’. One little guy really wanted to use Spongebob as his character. Two others insisted on PJ Masks. The characters may not have been original, but our ensuing discussion certainly was. Together, we took those characters and imagined them outside of their normal environment. They flew spaceships, scaled mountains and faced an active volcano. By moving the characters around and changing their scene, we were able to talk about how these characters would act and react. The kids were able to use their imaginations, even though they started with an existing character. Creativity at work!

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Most schools, even preschools, like to have written work. They like to have a worksheet, something they can use to document and point to, when asked what has been achieved. I understand that. It makes sense. I created a worksheet for the kids to write about and draw their characters. The important work, however, the stuff that really gets them thinking, is in the conversation. You can’t document it. You shouldn’t, not in its formative stages. It only gets in the way of drawing out that imagination.

The key here is not in writing. It’s not in the forming of letters. It’s not even in the drawing of the characters in bright and varied color (more on that in a minute). It’s the storytelling. It’s learning to use our minds to create. The words, the pictures, they come after our minds have been at work. The true key is conversation. It’s asking a child to think through an idea, form it, flesh it out. The secret is encouragement. Lots and lots of encouragement.

I love to have conversations with kids. I love to pull their ideas out of their heads when they are convinced they don’t have any. I love the look on their faces when they realize they’ve done it, when they see that they are capable.

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If you have a hesitant storyteller at home, absolutely feel free to start off with a character that they already know and love. Ask them what that character would do in different or wild scenarios. Get them to think about how the setting might change the action. It isn’t necessary to write down every thought. Listen. Ask questions. Find out what comes next. Throw a monkey wrench into their story and see if they run with it, see where it takes them. Is everything going just a little too well for that dinosaur eating plants at its favorite tree? What happens if the dinosaur suddenly finds itself standing by a volcano? What happens if the dinosaur meets a dog? There are endless possibilities.

As part of the worksheet that I put together, each child was asked to draw their new character. Interestingly, though some of the children struggled with creating original characters and storytelling, every single one of them drew a picture without prompting, complaint or judgement. Not a single one looked at me with concern. No one said, “I can’t draw.”

Five must be a golden age. Children of that age have developed the motor skills to draw, are full of ideas that they aren’t yet comfortable expressing through the written word, and have not yet hit the self-consciousness of age. They are less likely to judge their drawings skills against their peers. They are simply expressing themselves. Before long, such confidence disappears. Let’s work to fight against that slide. Let’s work to lift them up, to grow that confidence. It doesn’t have to slip away.

Need help getting started? Head over to my first post on storytelling and check out the Gently Guided Activity.

Tell me a story: Exercise your storytelling mind

I had planned to center my first activity post around some of my favorite creativity-themed books. A sick kiddo put a monkey wrench in that plan and I haven’t been able to pull it all together. That post will have to wait. Instead, I’m going to start with the concept of storytelling.   

As long as I can remember, we’ve had a pretty set bedtime routine for our daughter. It hasn’t changed much over the last eight years or so, since she was old enough to engage in the storytelling process. We alternate nights, my husband going through the routine one night, me the next. The routine looks something like this…she gets all comfy in her PJs, teeth and hair brushed, and she crawls into bed. We read books together and then we turn off the light. That’s when the books are put away and the real fun begins. That’s when she tells us a story.

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She doesn’t just pull a story out of thin air. That’s tough. Most people, even the most creatively-inclined, would have difficulty doing that every single night. We all have ideas floating around in our heads, but to pull them out on command is a challenge. Instead of leaving her to her own devices, we each give her one thing to add to her story. Nightly storytelling at our house goes a little something like this:

“Tell me a story about an elephant and cotton candy.”

It’s a prompt. A very simple prompt, with lots of room to grow. From there, she weaves her story, which almost always starts like this:

“Once upon a time, there was a little donkey named Eeyore and he lived with his best friend M. One day, M and Eeyore were playing with their friend Ellie, the elephant.”

M, Eeyore and their friend of the day are usually off to the beach, M’s happy place, though the location does change from time to time. As they hang out at the beach, the other story element will get thrown in to the mix:

“They decided to sell cotton candy. They made all kinds of flavors.”

And she’ll go through all the different possible colors and flavors, painting a beautiful rainbow of cotton candy and a bright-colored booth along the beach selling their creations.

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Other nights, there may be a castle involved, or a dragon. The dragons are always friendly. Even though there is a theme to her stories and certain things don’t change from night to night, she’s always coming up with something new, some way to connect the two ideas that she’s been given. The variety is in the details. She’s been doing this for so long, that she has no trouble telling these stories. They can go on rather long some nights…especially on nights when I’m tired and ready for bed myself!

Now that you know a little bit out our storytelling routine, I’m going to introduce the Gently Guided Activity. This is what I’m calling the mental exercises I’m setting forth for our creative brains. These are activities with parameters, but nothing that inhibits the flow of creativity, nothing that forces you into a box. There will often be many ways of achieving the goal of a Gently Guided Activity, allowing you to choose the medium or outlet that appeals to you or your child most. I’m not throwing you into the deep end of the creative pool. I’m giving you water wings and helping you float until you can swim through these amazing waters on your own.

A Gently Guided Activity for Storytelling: Find a time during the day to introduce your child to storytelling. It doesn’t have to be bedtime. Maybe you’re looking for good dinnertime conversation. Maybe it’s a fun idea to add to your morning routine. Pick a time and give your child two things to throw into a story. Listen. See what they come up with. Write it down, if you’d like. Do this a few times. It doesn’t have to be daily but give them practice. Storytelling gets easier, the more you do it. Flex that muscle.

Adults, this is a great one for you, too! Give yourself a prompt (or work on the same one as your child). Two things that don’t necessarily go together. Think of a story in your mind or write it down. It can be anything from a few sentences to a few pages. Just let the ideas flow, whether you think they’re good or not. Don’t judge, just practice.

If you feel up to it, you could always add sketches to your story. Or maybe you’d rather not tell a story at all. Maybe you’d rather use the prompt to write a poem or a song. Feel free to take the ideas from any Gently Guided Activity and adapt them to your own interests.

I’ll give a few prompts to get you started:

A turtle and pizza

A lion and a paint brush

A castle and a penguin

A lizard and a book

A caterpillar and ballet

A chest full of gold and a dog

A surf board and a piano

A train and a microscope

A box and an elephant

A hand print and a map

A tire swing and a stained-glass window

Have fun telling stories and let me know how it goes!