How Does a Childlike Mind Affect Creativity?: A Group Investigative Report

Laura Batt, Mackenzie Cohen, Dan Grome, Aaron Lee


"A notable characteristic of creativity is its special amalgam of the childlike and the adult like. This amalgam can occur both in the sphere of personality and in the sphere of ideas. It can be more positively tinged (when the childlike feature is innocence or freshness) or more negatively tinged (when the childlike feature is selfishness or retaliation)" (Gardner 1993, p.365).

Gardner's discussion of creative geniuses' childlike qualities intrigues us. In order to determine how important a role such qualities play in the lives of highly creative people, we decided to conduct an investigation of the childlike attributes of four different creative individuals: Richard Feynman, Beverly Cleary, Charles Darwin, and Harpo Marx. We posed three questions that we deemed necessary to better understand the effects of childlike qualities on creativity.

1)Is the childlike mind vital to creativity?

2)How does childlike mind affect creativity?--and does a degeneration of such a mind equate to a depletion of creative stockpiles?

3)What (if any) links are the most vital (or necessary) of the childlike mind to creativity?

Before embarking on our investigative journey, we felt it important to define what we think childlike means. After an intense brainstorming session, we come up with a variety of qualities that we declared childlike. We also gleaned descriptions of childlikeness from two outside sources--web sites dealing with creativity, children, and childlike characteristics. The following table present our results:

Childlike is...
our determinations cite 1 cite 2
curious passionate enjoying the simple pleasures
playful following interests taking time for play
open-minded seeking out and risking experimenting with new things laughing
imaginative paying attention to own rhythms viewing life as an adventure
selfish honoring daydreams wondering
adaptable considering mistakes as information, rather than as something unsuccessful questioning
questioning playing dreaming
utilizing many approaches
seeking recognition

Now that we've defined the possible criteria for what a childlike mind is, we plan to investigate which qualities our four creative individuals bear and the effects thereof. The following are our hypotheses: a childlike mind is not vital to creativity, but augments it; the childlike mind allows creators to stay fresh and continue to change their domains; there will be common characteristics that each link to at least three of our individuals, thus making these qualities candidates for trends in childlike-influenced creativity.

Richard Feynman

"When Richard Feynman faced a problem he was unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks and saying, 'Now, what have we got here?'" ("The Science of Creativity" 1996, p. 102).

Richard Feynman--physicist, teacher, husband, father, safe-cracker, bongo-player--a man who played many roles in his life, but played them all as the same man. Certain characteristics of Feynman persisted throughout his life, and helped him to enjoy himself whether he was playing at work, or working at play. Feynman exemplified nearly all of the characteristics that we included in our table, and nearly all are traits tinged with the ameliorative nature of childlikeness, as opposed to the pejorative. For example, Feynman was not selfish nor did he seek recognition. In fact, he wanted to turn down the Nobel prize, but a Time reporter advised him to just accept it and make less trouble for himself (Gribbin 1997). Some of the positive aspects of a childlike mind that best served Feynman in both his personal and professional lives are his open-mindedness and questioning nature, quest for simplicity, playfulness, and passion.

Throughout his time working on the atomic bomb in the 1940's, Feynman gained respect from many of the top minds in physics because of his openness to new ideas, and the willingness to speak his mind. He later reflected, "I had the problem that I had no respect for reputation or authority, something my father had taught me" (Mehra 1994, p. 87). This "problem," allowed Feynman to argue with such folks as Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, and others; this capacity set him apart from his colleagues, who might have often been too afraid to speak their minds. His wife--the first of three--encouraged this trait in Feynman. It was Arlene who gave him the advice that forms the title of his last book, What Do You Care What Other People Think?" Later in life, Feynman was never embarrassed to ask questions of anyone, no matter their position, as his quest was always to consider material presented--not presenters of material. If he had to question Einstein, he would, and did (Mehra 1994).

The desire for simplicity is definitely seen in Feynman's life, and in the lives of many the creative geniuses that Gardner profiles. Describing Einstein, Gardner comments, "...he insisted on going back to first principles: in setting for himself the most fundamental problems and in looking for the most comprehensive yet simplifying explanatory axioms" (Gardner 1993, p. 10). Very similarly, Feynman sought always to simplify, and in doing so, created some of his most notable works. For example, his Feynman diagrams: simple arrangements of lines and arrows that explained his novel Nobel prize-winning view of quantum electrodynamics. Feynman also believed in simplicity in explanation, and one reason he was such an excellent communicator in his field was precisely that people could understand him. Whereas his colleagues would spew out mathematical equation after mathematical equation, Feynman would always augment his presentations with lucid analogies, and simple diagrams (Mehra 1994). In this sense, he was able to excel as an interpersonal communicator in his field because of his departure from the conventional approaches to physics. Without his continuous quest for simplicity, Feynman might not have been so effective a communicator.

Addressing our second question, for Feynman, a degeneration of a childlike mind does seem to correspond to a depletion of creative stockpiles. During his short period of depression after working on the bomb, Feynman decided that the reason he was unhappy was that he was not "playing" with physics anymore. He originally fell in love with the subject because it lent itself to puzzling situations--any and all of which Feynman loved to explore. After deciding to begin once again to "play with physics," to recharge his childlike mind, Feynman was much happier and much more productive (Mehra 1994). One day, watching a friend toss a Cornell-emblazoned china plate in the air, he became intrigued by the relationship of the plate's wobbling to its rotation. He decided to figure out the equations governing motion just for fun. "There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate" (Feynman 1985, p. 174).

Feynman likely could have finished working fervently after he won the prestigious Nobel award in 1965; his reputation would already be enough to win respect from his peers and students. But his true love of physics and the "pleasure of finding things out" helped to fuel the amazing feats he continued to accomplish right up to his death (Mehra 1994). Gell-Mann spoke of Feynman's day-to-day attitude when he commented, "He was a picture of energy, vitality, and playfulness. That was Richard at his best. He often worked on theoretical physics in the same way, with zest and humor" (Gell-Mann 1989, p. 50).

Because of his attitudes towards both people life and physics life, Feynman was able to work out a suitable balance for himself without sacrificing too much of one for the other. As one of his biographers put it, "To Feynman, love was more important than physics; it just happened that, as well as loving people, he loved physics" (Gribbin 1997, p. xv). And if he had not possessed a childlike mind, perhaps he would have loved neither.

Beverly Cleary

What made Beverly Cleary capable of changing and vastly improving her domain of children's literature above others? She had a unique, multifaceted asset: her childlike mind.

There are many creative individuals out there; however, most don't change the domains in which they work. Beverly Cleary, because of her childlike qualities, was able to not only act as a catalyst to her domain of children's literature, but remain in it for her entire adult life.

Because Cleary was playful and imaginative, she was successfully able to capture childhood realistically in all of her books in a time in which good children's books about children simply did not have the truth and depth their young readers desired and needed. "Ramona felt a little indignant, because Miss Mullen did not demand to know why she had been hiding all that time. Miss Mullen did not even notice how forlorn and tearstained Ramona looked. Ramona had been so cold and lonely and miserable that she thought Miss Mullen should show some interest. She had half expected the principal to say, Why you poor little thing! Why were you hiding behind the trash cans?" (Cleary 1968, p.98). Nobody else but someone with a childlike mind could produce literature so empathetic towards young people; Cleary understood their emotions and behaviors because she herself had childlikeness.

Had Beverly Cleary's childlike mind disappeared halfway through her career, her creativity would have changed dramatically. She would have faltered in her ability to change her domain. This is because one of the most vital childlike qualities for her was her adaptability. As the decades passed, she continued to be able to write books in touch with children's thoughts and feelings, while updating her characters with the times. Had she kept Ramona's parents as the typical 1950's middle-class couple with children, they would have failed to affect modern authors' books. Because they changed, upcoming writers saw the continuing example of true-to-life modern parents. It is the same case for the myriad of other characters; few authors could have really learned from old-fashioned Henry Huggins and dress-wearing Beezus (even though kids enjoy the original classics because emotions and humor are timeless). However, they learned from Cleary's adapting characters and books, enabling her to continue to change the domain of children's literature.

For Beverly Cleary, the abilities to be both playfully childlike and to adapt like a child enabled her to prove herself more than just a creative individual--she was a lasting domain-changer.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin pursued the work in his life as a boy plays, never tiring, with Hotwheels. Darwin took his Hotwheels, played with them, arranged them, and built a larger-than-life parking garage for them. Yes, Charles was very childlike in his approach to his work, his zest for life, and his acceptance of new ideas. Several traits characterize Charles' inner child. Theses traits are apparent during his years of schooling, his five year voyage aboard the Beagle, and in the years after his return. Charles' inner-child was always playing.

From the beginning of his schooling at Shrewsbury boarding school, to Edinburgh University, and even to Christ's College, Cambridge, Charles was bored with droning professors. He needed excitement and the outdoors, not some stuffy lectures in which to daydream. Charles was constantly skipping lectures to collect various objects of nature, and at Cambridge, he took up shooting and sporting. Charles was curious and questioning about the things he collected, and he enjoyed taking time to enjoy the simple pleasures of the outdoors. Charles also viewed life as an adventure. His dream was to travel, and, on December 27, 1831, with his curiosity leading him, he embarked on a five year journey across the Atlantic aboard the HMS Beagle. "The long voyage of the Beagle was his creative period - the withdrawal of the prophet to his wilderness, of the scientist to his laboratory" (Huxley, 14). On this trip, Charles was open to new ideas as he enthusiastically and tirelessly collected data and recorded nature, adapting to new formulations of theories as evidence supported them. Upon return, he risked his views and his dreams to write a book and support a revolutionary theory of his time. He stood by the evidence that he had collected and the ideas he had constructed. Charles sought out risk and playfully experimented with new ideas to formulate his exact theory and culmination of his life's work in The Origin of Species.

Charles Darwin, although often viewed in a dry and scientific light, utilized his childlike mind to change his domain and revolutionize the field of science. His questioning, open-mindedness, and mutable approach to the immutability theory of species led him to a revelation - one he could not have reached without his vigor and enthusiasm towards his work.

Harpo Marx

Milte Jaffe, speaking to Harpo Marx, once said, "I could see you were one guy out of ten thousand, the kind that stays young forever" (Marx 1961, p.472).

Growing up, Harpo Marx did not have much of an opportunity to be a kid. His life was dangerously adult at an early age. After quitting school in the second grade, Harpo had little--if any--time to start playing games. He hit the streets, and became a juvenile delinquent. When he was not conning free meals or working a scheme with Chico, Harpo was on an endless quest to not only get, but ultimately keep a job. In his free time, he taught himself to read, tell time, play the piano, and escape the Irish kids the next block over.

That all changed when the Marx Brothers became a traveling act. When he was on stage, Harpo could escape the world of scraping for money for meals and running away from landlords and police. It was on stage that Harpo began his childhood. Allowing himself the pleasures of laughter and absurdity on stage brought about a similar changes offstage: Harpo was at last able to be a child.

Freeing himself up in this way allowed Harpo to approach the Marx Brothers' plays with the thoughtful disposition of a child; this was reflected on stage. The Marx Brothers' style became that of exaggeration in dealing with the world around them, much the way a child will make a story more and more fantastic. Harpo's pantomimic idiot is really nothing more than an exaggerated child: he is always getting into trouble; he is a constant goof; he does not seem to listen (let alone talk); and he is extremely naive.

The childish antics of the Marx Brothers paid off and they were able to make it on Broadway. Once there, Harpo would become friends with an elite group of intellectuals affectionately known as the Algonquin Round-table. It was the Roaring Twenties and Harpo was living it up with the brightest and most famous delinquents of the 1920's: "I wasn't having a second childhood. It was my first real childhood." He was spending time with people, who like him, wished for nothing more than to enjoy life. Among them was the great critic Alexander Woollcott. "Perhaps the one thing that Woollcott had in common with me was his ability to stay young and enjoy childish pleasures, no matter how old he became" (Marx 1961, p.178).

The Marx brothers were successful and Harpo finally had the money to do everything he had always wanted to do, but couldn't.

"When I could finally afford them, I couldn't stop making up for all the things I had been deprived of - food and comfort; silly little luxuries; time to play games, and the company of good friends" (Marx 1961, p.69).

Describing Harpo's disposition, Groucho would say, "He's the best adjusted man in the world. If a flood comes, he'll be riding a house as if he had never done anything else but ride houses. When the bomb falls, he'll start fixing his chimney without even looking up to see what hit him" (Crichton 1950, p.301).

It was these and other childlike traits: his playfulness, imagination, spontaneity, ability to enjoy simple pleasures, sense of wonder, and indifference to change; that allowed him to become the domain-changing comic that he was (along with his brothers). If any of these traits had been absent, the world would have been robbed of Harpo's comic genius. These traits were essential to his creative process, and would be the staple of his characters on stage and in film--characters that were full of life and wonder, mischief and blunder, and hedonistic needs to chase bust-y blondes.

In life and on film, Harpo managed to become the child he had missed in his early life. In doing so he changed not only the domain of comedy, but also the way we view the world and its seemingly infinite capacity to make us laugh.

"Honk! Honk!"


Most of our hypotheses concerning the childlike mind and creativity seem to have been proven correct, as evidenced by our selected individuals.

The childlike mind does indeed seem to augment creativity, providing various facets on which a creator can build the creative works. For example, the ability to adapt to the environment allows a creator to continue to influence his or her domain in new and fresh ways. Open-mindedness and playfulness prevent stagnation in creative enterprises; without these qualities, some creative longevity is lost.

One interesting question that was raised out of our investigation is whether childlikeness is less or more important in a creator's nature in life or approach to work. As far as our individuals are concerned, we noticed examples of both creators who demonstrated childlike qualities in all aspects of their life and work, as well as creators who merely had a childlike approach to their work. From our studies, as well as Gardner's, it seems that Feynman, Cleary, Harpo, Einstein, Picasso, and Graham represent the former, while Darwin, Freud, Stravinsky, Eliot, and Gandhi represent the latter. All found success in their domains. Thus, while childlikeness in a creator's approach to work seems very important, it does not seem as essential in the personal sphere.

For all creators who do show evidence of childlike qualities in their works, a degeneration of these traits does seem to correspond to a depletion of creative stockpiles. Feynman noticed this in himself, and was able to successfully remedy his depression and unproductiveness by beginning to "play with physics" again. The rest of the creators seem not to have run into this problem simply because they did not lose their childlike take on the world. Maybe one reason that creative geniuses are able to be productive for so long is that they are able to maintain these qualities longer than their peers.

Using knowledge of our selected individuals, we created the following table to try to determine what characteristics of childlikeness are associated most frequently with the lives of creative individuals.
characteristics Feynman Cleary Darwin Harpo Total
curious X X X X 4
playful X X X 3
open-minded X X 2
imaginative X X X 3
questioning X X X 3
utilizing many approaches X X 2
spontaneous X X X 3
seeking recognition 0
selfish 0
adaptability X X X X 4
passionate X X 2
following interests X X X X 4
seeking out and risking experimenting with new things X X X 3
paying attention to own rhythms X 1
honoring dreams and daydreams X X X 3
considering mistakes as information, rather than as something unsuccessful X X X 3
playing X X X 3
enjoying the simple pleasures X X X 3
taking time for play X X X X 4
laughing X X X X 4
viewing life as an adventure X X X X 4
wondering X X X X 4
questioning X X X 3
dreaming X X X X 4

We deemed characteristics receiving a scores of three or four as most essential, at least for our investigation. But we realize that our four creators do not represent the entire creative world, nor is it easy to quantify any of these qualities. One observation that we are able to make about this table is that some of the traits are definitely positively tinged, while some are negatively tinged. Gardner also acknowledges this difference in the classification of childlike traits (Gardner 1993). A possible way to describe the difference between the two categories of characteristics is to separate them into a childlike group and a childish group, where the former contains all ameliorative traits; the latter, all pejorative traits. However, we feel that the inclusion of all of these traits is important when examining the childlike nature of an individual. Even though none of our selected individuals displayed overt selfish behavior, this trait played an important role in the lives of some of the Gardner Seven, perhaps most noticeably in Picasso and Graham.

Gardner's recognition of the seeming trend of childlike behavior in the lives of highly creative individuals is important--perhaps more so than he lays out. We have come to the conclusion that while childlike characteristics are not vital to creativity, they certainly add to it. And one would be hard-pressed to find a highly creative individual who does not possess any of the traits, although we realize that we cannot classify people as childlike just because they may agree with one chart entry. However, it seems that the individuals who do possess many of the traits, and are actively childlike in approaching their work, do succeed in producing life-long, fresh, domain-changing, creative works.


Cleary, B. (1968). Ramona the pest. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Crichton, K. (1950). The Marx Brothers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Feynman, R. P. (1988). "What do you care what other people think?" New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Gardner, H. (1993). Creating minds. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gell-Mann, M. (1989). Dick Feynman--the guy in the office down the hall. Physics Today: 42(2), 50-54.

Gribbin, J., & Gribbin, M. (1997). Richard Feynman. New York, NY: Dutton.

Huxley, J. (1965). Charles Darwin and his world. New York, NY: The Viking Press.

Marx, H. (1961). Harpo speaks. New York: Bernard Geis Associates, Random House Inc.

Mehra, J. (1994). The beat of a different drum: the life and science of Richard Feynman. New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc.

The science of creativity. (1996, October). Discover, 17,102.

The information that appears in our childlike table came from:

"cite 1":

"cite 2":