What came to your mind as you read the title of this blog? Childhood dreams of being an astronaut? Astronomy? The relative tininess of our planet when compared to the vastness of space? Star Wars?
Thinking about big, distant things piques our curiosity, but more importantly, it shifts our perspective. Psychologists call the phenomenon “expansive thinking.” And it’s just what it sounds like: the expanding of our horizons, the broadening of perspective, a shift in focus. Expansive thinking allows us to consider different points of view, rather than getting locked into a ”contractive” way of thinking, hyper-focusing on the here and now, which can cause immobilization.
What does all this have to do with helping our kids grow into well-rounded, productive, responsible adults? Quite a bit, actually. Let’s consider the long-term results of developing both a contractive and an expansive mindset.
Adults who are by nature contractive thinkers are often:
- Prone to viewing themselves as victims
- Prone to feeling jealousy or resentment towards others who seem to have it easier than they do
- Poor problem solvers
- Poor at long-term planning and impulse control
Whereas adults who are expansive thinkers are usually:
- More patient
- Good problem-solvers
- More tenacious when things don’t come easily
- More empathetic and less judgmental
But if people are by nature more inclined to be one or the other type of thinker, there’s nothing to be done, right? You might be surprised.
Enter Professor Nira Liberman of Tel Aviv University of Psychological Studies. Her work, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, has found that children can learn to develop their expansive thinking abilities quite effectively.
Her team worked with 55 children ages 6-9. Half of the children were shown a series of photographs that started with familiar objects in the room with them and gradually progressed farther and farther from their field of view to pictures of our galaxy. The other half of the children were shown the same pictures but in reverse order.
Then they were tested on creativity. They were given an object and asked to name as many uses for the item as they could think of. Points were awarded based both on the number of answers and on the creativity of the use. Hands down, the kids who were shown pictures in an expansive order rather than a contractive order scored higher in creativity.
What does this show? First, the smaller our (or our child’s) worldview, the less creativity there’s likely to be. And secondly, while some people are more creative than others, creativity is a skill that can be developed. Priming the mind by thinking outside the box, about bigger things than ourselves and our immediate environment is training for an expansive, creative point of view.
“Creativity is basically about the flexibility of thought of your mental system,” explains Professor Liberman. Like the physical stretching that makes your body more flexible, mental exercises such as problem-solving can train the mind to improve its creative thinking.
“The flexibility of your mental operations is important because it underlies many human qualities, such as empathy, self-regulation, problem-solving, and the ability to make new discoveries,” she adds.
The takeaway for parents: look for moments in daily life that are expansive teaching opportunities. Some examples include
- If you see someone littering, talk to your child about what their home would look like if every piece of trash from daily life ended up on the floor: soon the house would be filled and there’d be nowhere to live. The earth is our larger home. Environmental sensitivity involves a long-term view of the consequences of our actions, not just impulsively doing the most convenient thing.
- If someone has an emotional moment, ask your child to think about what that person may have been thinking or feeling that caused them to become upset.
- Take a walk together, and then use a calculator and a map to figure out how long the two of you would have to walk to cross your county or your state. Give them a feeling for how big the world is based on their own stride.
- Look at the stars together. Telescopes are ideal, but there are also a number of phone apps that will help the two of you discover what a huge place our galaxy is, and how much there is that is unknown and unexplored by humans. Here are some suggestions.
If you’re looking for a series of exciting adventure books that helps reluctant readers, take a peek at the award-winning Sir Kaye series published by Cardboard Box Adventures Publishing. The audio editions of the Sir Kaye books are available on Audible.com, Amazon.com, and iTunes.