Why Creative Education is Important for Kids
Our children's future success—and the country's—depends on the creative education they receive in school. Here's what you can do right now to crank up the creativity and imaginative play.
It's a brisk winter morning in New York City and a class of bubbly preschoolers have burst into Room 5 of the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School for a period of free play. Amid an explosion of drawing, coloring, and play-dough kneading, Maxine, 3, and Harper, 4, two towheaded girls in pink skirts, are building a tower out of colorful wood blocks. Their structure, however, is top-heavy, and it begins to wobble. The pair stops and scrutinizes their work. Harper dismantles the tower and starts to rebuild. “Let's put it like this,” she tells Maxine, using the biggest blocks to create a solid foundation. Up the tower goes again, this time standing firmly on a solid base.
This may not seem like a remarkable activity—kids build stuff and pull it apart on a daily basis. But what Harper did in revising her construction methods was to engage a two-step thought process known as “divergent thinking.” First, her mind flipped through her knowledge on the geometry of blocks (cubes are sturdy; cones, not so much). Then it generated new ideas for how she might use them (place large cubes at the bottom, instead of on top). Divergent thinking is key to problem solving and is the backbone of creativity—understanding what is, and then imagining the possibilities of what could be.
The word “creativity,” in our society, tends to be applied to artistic endeavors. But divergent thinking is an essential part of everyday life, whether it's navigating office politics or devising a new social-media network. When a toddler figures out that he can climb a strategically placed chair to reach a cookie on the kitchen counter, he has engaged in highly creative problem solving (to the chagrin of his parents). “We all have creative potential,” says Mark Runco, Ph.D., director of the University of Georgia's Torrance Center for Creativity & Talent Development. “Our job as parents and teachers is to help kids fulfill it.”
Whether that potential is being fulfilled is another story entirely. Kyung Hee Kim, Ph.D., an educational psychologist at the College of William & Mary, in Virginia, has spent the past decade poring over the creativity scores of more than 300,000 American K—12 students. The news is not good: “Creativity scores have significantly decreased since 1990,” she says. Moreover, “creativity scores for kindergartners through third-graders decreased the most, and those from the fourth through sixth grades decreased by the next largest amount.”
The scores Kim is referring to are those generated by the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking—the standard-bearer in assessing creativity in children since the 1960s. In fact, the results of the Torrance Tests are also better indicators of lifetime creative accomplishment than childhood IQ. The tests consist of open-ended questions, such as “How many uses can you think of for a toothbrush?” Scores are awarded based on the number and originality of the ideas produced. A creative child might respond by saying that he can brush his cat's teeth, polish a rock, and clean his fingernails—all answers that show dexterity in generating a wide range of potentially useful ideas.
This unique ability is one that will be crucial to the workforce of the future. Today's toddler faces a universe of rapidly evolving technology, an ever-shifting global economy, and far-reaching health and environmental challenges—scenarios that will require plenty of creative thinking. Here's what you can do to ensure your child gets it.