Kate Gramling Principal consultant Illumineer

Walkabout for Creativity

PostedThursday, July 11, 2019 at 12:56 PM

Walkabout for Creativity

In the traditional Australian aboriginal culture, a “walkabout” is a rite of passage in which a young man walks into the desert or bush alone on a spiritual quest. These solitary hikes could cover 1000 miles — without the aid of a compass.

Growing up, most our family vacations were in July. School was out, the planting was done, and a neighbor could be counted on to look after things. We’d pack-up a truck camper and head west. It was our family version of “walkabout”.

We never had plans. We had maps and a return date. We wandered through forests on fire roads; hunted for rocks in sleepy rivers; and read all the historic markers when we picnicked in tiny township parks. It was a glorious way to see the country.

As I and my siblings grew up, the annual camper trips gave way to weekly bicycle rides. We’d leave in the twilight hours of a Saturday morning with a general heading and some county maps. We’d wander around until we found a suitable place to stop for lunch and then meander home in time to see the fireflies emerge from the tall grass beyond the edge of the yard.

These kinds of fluid journeys, I think, help foster creativity, which is an important habit of mind for engineers.  Breaking away from the inertia of our everyday lives can have a rejuvenating effect. Doing so without a specific purpose — other than to “go where the spirit moves you” — can be downright inspiring.

Rain forest

Living in, studying, and protecting rain forests presents unique challenges. How could engineering design be worked into a study of this critical ecosystem?

When family outings became too complicated to schedule, my mom, a life-long teacher, found new ways to “walkabout”. She would start with a trigger – something that came up during school or something that she saw or read about in the news. Over the summer, she would look up magazine articles and check out books from the library, collecting as much information as she could. She had no preconceived ideas, she would just follow each new discovery with whatever question came to mind.

One summer, she started with a Weekly Reader interview with Lynn Cherry on her book “The Great Kapok Tree”. In just a few weeks, she amassed a huge collection of stories about tropical rain forests, forestry, sustainable farming, endangered animals, biodiversity, native medicine, genetic engineering, geography, … She visited local zoos, sent away for maps and brochures, and began imagining how she could use everything she was finding.

She developed activities in every area of the curriculum. She had enough material by August to plan a year-long project to investigate rain forests in her classroom. The experience gave her the chance to start the new year excited to share what she had learned and ready to learn even more with her students.

A “walkabout” – in reality or in the imagination – can be a direct route to creative thinking. Sometimes you hit dead ends. Sometimes you get lost in places you don’t really want to be. But sometimes the journey will show you something amazing.

Photo Credits:

Shadow walker image by tijmen van dobbenburgh from FreeImages
Rain forest image by Jenny Nerlich from FreeImages