Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Want Creative Kids? Leave 'Em Alone. . .

Oops. I got sidetracked from what I meant to post today by an article I came across last evening. This is just a bit of opinionatedness coming out, and you are welcome to disagree with me. :-) I suppose all you really need is the title of the post, but here's more, if you're interested:

Take children from their natural "work" of self-directed play and exploration; sit them in a chair and confine them to about four square feet of personal space for much of the day (during the most important developmental years of their lives); ask them not to speak unless they raise their hands and are granted permission; insist that they keep their minds solely and fully on the task that has been assigned to them; teach them always to color within the lines, and correct them that the sky is blue when they veer from this truth; tell them there is one right way to solve a problem and reward them with superlatives and gold stars when they find it; tell them where to sit, where to stand, when to use the bathroom, when to speak, when and where and how to play, and so on and so forth.

Do this, and we will certainly greatly hinder the innate creativity of the children in our care. We may even succeed in suppressing or killing it entirely.

And having achieved this, but never supposing that the loss of creativity has anything to do with children being schooled, we innocently and earnestly scratch our heads and wonder why they have become increasingly less creative as they’ve grown older.

We are astute enough to recognize that creativity is important—that this is what sparks invention, great art, literature, and music, and all kinds of beauty and innovation, as well as an ability to think well and solve challenging problems—so, we put our best adult educational minds together to imagine and devise ways to help our children develop the important skill of creativity.

We study it, analyze it, dissect it, ask how our great thinkers, inventors, creators, and leaders thought and worked, and then we develop exercises that will nudge (or require) our school children to begin to think like those creative minds. We write curricula and develop programs, and--voila!--we have very poorly, ineffectively, and likely incorrectly, attempted to capture what would have been natural had we left children alone.

Children are innately creative. Really, in light of the fact that we are made in the image of our Creator, is this any wonder? We are made to think and act creatively.

Children easily and naturally develop creativity through self-directed play. Children choose to play only at what is interesting to them, and we all know that when something interests us, we are able to apply a great deal of focus and energy to that endeavor. As they play, children solve problems and set challenges for themselves at the perfect level of difficulty. They like to stretch and reach (they are bored otherwise), but the goals they set are also attainable (if they are too difficult, children will simply reset them without grading themselves or feeling like they have failed). Upon success, after a sufficient amount of “practice” at that level, children set the bar higher. Then higher. And higher. And all along, they think critically and trouble-shoot creatively. They develop ideas and new ways of doing things. They think “out of the box” (to use a bit of jargon).They are intensely focused, they are highly motivated, they are having fun, and they are highly successful.

During play, children also learn naturally to appreciate beauty. Their senses are attuned to the world around them—to the wonders of nature, to the strains of a lovely composition in the background, to what is beautiful, interesting, or appealing. They soak it in subtly and constantly and gain a deep appreciation for what is lovely. They begin to develop tastes and preferences that are all their own, and they apply this sensibility to everything they consider and do.

Children behave in play the way we only dream they will behave in school.

All you have to do is look up “play and creativity” on Google or Google Scholar to see that research shows the two to be powerfully linked. But when scholars and educators realize that play is an important key to the development of creativity, they don’t think, “Oh, that’s easy. We’ll let the kids play, just like they did from the minute they were born.” Instead, we say to these school children, “Quit playing around and get back to work!” And, as we speak the words, we are devising strategies to make school more playful and spending huge sums of money on programs that will incorporate (teacher-guided) play into lessons.

Does this strike anyone else as ludicrous? How about this innovative idea instead: Just let kids play. Let them at it! And stay out of it.

When looking up a certain book on the internet last night, I ran across some ideas about creativity that seemed to be presented as eye-opening. I scanned the article for its supposed new insight, but all I found was what parents of kids who spend long hours at unstructured, self-guided play already know. Each of these suggestions seems obvious because they occur naturally within true play, especially in a home environment that is established to encourage play and learning.

In this home atmosphere it doesn’t even occur to us to tell kids to do something creative (as the “Forget Brainstorming” article—linked above—warns against doing) because, when they play, they already are. Likewise, we don’t need to tell them (or lure them) to get moving because, again, they already are. We don’t need to encourage them to take breaks or switch things up because this is how kids roll when they play. All of this research is innate to them. We don’t need to worry about reducing screen time because it has already made sense to us that screen time keeps our kids from many good things, so we’ve addressed that. The part about exploring other cultures? Well, what did creative people do before they could watch a documentary on China? As long as our kids are around a variety of interesting, diverse people and we are listening to their stories and learning about them, I don’t think we need to overstress this. Follow a passion? Well, isn’t that what kids do when they play? And never fear! The interests and passions of childhood become more sophisticated (and look more scholarly) as kids grow older. Ditch the suggestion box? Yeah, well, we never had one of those, either.

You know me. I’m a mostly unschoolish type, so it probably seems natural for me to say “just let a child play and everything will fall into place.” I do think play is powerful, but I don’t think play alone will make everything come together for education or life. (Again, it’s about that atmosphere, and play is part of that—a big part.) I’m also not saying that a child shouldn’t learn to listen well, sit still, pay attention, focus on the task at hand, and finish the work he is given, but a schoolish structure should not overwhelmingly dominate his time. I don’t know about you, but if I were to err, I would err on the side of allowing too much free time because I found that when my kids were deeply engaged in life and play, free time became very serious, creative, and (I cringe to say it) productive, “work.”  

Creativity demands time and freedom for a person to play in his own way, from early childhood all the way into old age. I believe that true play is good work, and the development of creativity arises from this.


  1. Susan, Thank you for these posts.
    Where do you get the courage to say, leave them alone and all will work out well? I need some of that!
    Also, is it too late to join your daughter in requesting some articles on gentle parenting? I'm guessing gentle parenting and the unschooling approach are linked. I can't imagine the controlling parent being a comfortable advocate of unschooling.
    Kind Regards,
    Sandra (followed you over from High Desert Home - which I still love and reread from time to time.)

  2. So well said….Thank you! You can keep writing things like this every day for moms like me to be reminded! :)
    I stepped outside today as the boys and I had to dissect flowers and I realized how wonderful it felt outside…then realized I hadn't stepped out all day yet. No wonder my boys never want to come in!
    I'm working on becoming more "like you" in all of this!
    Bless you, and Aloha,

  3. I was just talking about how I'm afraid my 5-yo daughter is going to loose her creativity... It happened to me.

    Just what do I do!?

    I don't have the $ for private school... nor the time (I'm a biz owner) for homeschool. :/ Ugh!

    It's what I needed to see!

  4. Couldn't have said this better myself. Thanks for echoing what I've been thinking!

  5. This is truly fabulous. I get asked all the time how do I 'encourage creativity' in my children, but it really is just a matter of not squelching what is the God-given nature of every child - savoring it, encouraging it, providing time and materials and 'atmosphere' for it. You explain it so well, thank you!

  6. Sandra, I'm glad you commented! It's nice to know who was reading at my other blog and now here. :-) About leaving kids alone. . . I didn't leave them entirely alone, just *enough* alone. Plenty alone. :-) It's really about having vision from the Lord and simply following that, whether that looks something like mine or nothing like it at all! And it's about that atmosphere I keep harping about! In that kind of atmosphere, I think creativity can flourish. But I do think that all kids need a lot of wide-open time. I don't know about the articles because I'll start school next Monday. But I heard about an "unschooling" book that someone described as more about gentle parenting, really. Maybe you know of it. It's by. . . I *think* this is right. . . Suze Andres (or something like that). I can't remember the title, but it will show up on Amazon by looking up the author), and I definitely want to read the book! Best wishes, Sandra!

    Monica, well, you are certainly an "outside" family, so I'm sure you get plenty of this kind of time! Your boys are really good at what they do, and that always takes creativity, so you are on a good roll! :-)

    To the Nice Person. . . I think if parents are aware and provide a nurturing, free, warm environment at home and don't overschedule their children or overstructure the time when they are not in school, and if parents lead by example and do the things I listed in that article of mine I linked, that there's a whole bunch of hope! :-) There's no one right way to do things. We all live in different kinds of homes and families and situations, and I always think where there is a will, there really is a way! So, best wishes to you! And I'm glad you commented!

    Jessica--a kindred spirit! :-)

    Kimberlee, thank you. And I so agree with you! :-)

  7. Hi, Susan! Have so been enjoying your posts. This one, in particular, spoke to me. Now having a son, these things weigh on my mind. I see him relishing every moment of every day, taking it all in and so full of wonder. I remember our conversation about how you 'unschooled' your children while working side-by-side on our farm one afternoon. Your courage and vision left such an impression on me then, and is renewed in me now. I pray I have the courage and wisdom to do whatever it takes to do right by my own. So happy to keep up with your beautiful life! Jordan

  8. Jordan, I cannot tell you how *happy, happy, happy* it made me to see your comment! I really miss you! You are one of my all-time favorite people! :-) I remember the conversation we had while working on your farm that day very well, and I had no idea you had given much thought to it, so it was nice to read your comment. Thank you. I have no doubt in my mind you will do what is right by your son, whatever you choose to do. I hope and pray you and Darrin and your little guy are doing well. I think of you so often and still miss your beautiful CSA produce! (I was just looking over your recipes the other day--such good stuff you shared with us!) Take care, and stay in touch. :-)