The Proustian phenomenon tells us that our sense of smell has more power than any other sense to provoke distinct and emotional memories within us. In his novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time) Marcel Proust describes a character vividly recalling memories from his childhood after smelling a tea-soaked biscuit. Memories, long-forgotten, can often come flooding back to us, when certain smells are encountered again.
A whiff of bacon and egg does it for me. I am always whisked away to Weston-super-Mare, aged seven, going for a morning stroll with my Grandpa. At the end of his road, just near the sea front, was a nursing home for the elderly and every morning the most luscious smells of full English breakfasts would blast out of a vent in the kitchen wall. The seaside, for me, doesn’t smell of seaweed, it smells of bacon.
Trips to Weston were always a sensory adventure. After serving in the war as a bomb disposal expert, my grandpa turned his steady hands to chiropody and his surgery was inside the house. The unforgettable smell of phenol and salicylic acid would always greet us in the hallway after my Nana had opened the door with a beaming smile.
But the most memorable part of our weekends in Weston wasn’t the chemicals or the bacon or the seaside. It was my Nana’s old wooden button box – a large, rectangular open tray with a handle across the top of it. It was divided into several felt-lined compartments and each one housed the most extraordinary delights you could imagine. Shiny blue ones, pearly white ones, two holes, four holes, leather toggles, great big brass ones, tiny red spherical ones. Some so small you could imagine an elf sewing them onto a shirt, others so large they must have fallen from a giant’s duffle coat. And then there were the military ones, my favourites, with emblems and crests and royal coats of arms. You could only imagine the places they’d seen, peering like eyes from the tunic of a sailor.
How I loved that button box. I’d spend hours rifling through it, listening to the clickerty-clack of the little buttons rattling in the tray, running my fingers through them like sand on the beach beyond the nursing home. Watching the colours as I blended them all together into a multi-coloured, chunky soup. Laying them out in rows and creating patterns across the floor. Threading them onto string and making my Nana a necklace or my father a pretend wristwatch. Button men, button roads, button food and button jewellery. How could anyone resist their enticing appeal?
If you want a definition for what creativity is, then you need look no further than your grandmother’s button box. I have thought a great deal about why I was so transfixed by it – why hours would pass unnoticed while I was so absorbed. They call it being in ‘flow-state’ these days. I’ve often mentioned that button box when delivering CPD training in schools and it’s astonishing the number of teachers who smile and nod their head. It seems I wasn’t the only one who liked playing with buttons. There is a common fascination in childhood for sorting, shaping and creating.
I know now what I was doing during those trips to Weston. I was engaging in pure, unfettered creativity and I believe there were four distinct stages to it.
Firstly, I was using perception. I rifled, sifted, flicked and clicked. I swirled them around and studied all the colour combinations and varieties. I studied them with great care and interest. Their differences intrigued me – so many variables in one wooden box. I used my senses to get to know them all, see and feel them, hear them clickerty-clack in my hand, become familiar with all the constituent parts of the creations that were to follow.
Secondly, I made connections. I loved nothing better than dropping them over the carpet and sorting them into different categories, coloured or plain, two holes or four, round ones, toggles, odd shaped ones, plastic or metal. There was something very pleasing and therapeutic about the practice of sorting them into groups. I remember, years later, I found myself working in a petrol station as a student. I used to tip the packets of cigarettes all over the kiosk floor just so that I could sort them out again (it broke the monotony of a night-shift). Their different coloured designs pleased me and they stacked up so well together – making an ideal Jenga substitute during quiet shifts.
Back in Weston, there then followed a really exciting stage in my work with those buttons, the synthesis stage. I blended and connected and combined those buttons to create original designs and products, from sculptures and collages to roads, figures and jewellery. These were different every time and I was proud of them. They meant something to me and those buttons allowed me to give vent to my imagination in a physical way. The button box was a palette and I was the artist, synthesising the elements together with imagination and vision. It didn’t occur to me that there was a wrong way or a right way to build a button man, or a button chain – so I wasn’t afraid to ‘have a go’ and just see what I could make. It was the same with Lego – a construction toy with which I am still besotted even now. Back then, of course, I would grab any pieces I could find from the giant tub of crusty blocks and knock up a vehicle, spaceship or hobbit’s hovel from my imagination. Now, as an adult, I mindlessly follow Lego kit instructions and call it therapeutic.
After the synthesis stage came the final part, the presentation. This was the much anticipated ‘tadaah’ moment, when I ran into the kitchen, grabbed my Nanna, pulled her by the hand into the front room and said ‘Tadaah! What do you think, Nanna?’ A rapturous response always ensued. Nanna’s arthritic hands were misshapen and twisted but I knew she had once loved playing with those buttons as much as I did and my elaborate designs never failed to bring a smile to her face.
The four stages of my button work were of equal importance, though I didn’t realise it at the time. All I knew was there was a procedure to it, a kind of ritual that I always followed, enjoying each stage, and especially the last.
Perceiving, connecting, synthesising, presenting – you need all four stages for creativity to flourish in schools. My book, Teaching for Creativity, is about how to plan for each one in your classroom.
Teaching for Creativity is the second title in the Invisible Curriculum Series, published by John Catt Educational. Click here to view it.