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A Box? Or a Spaceship? What Makes Kids Creative

The Wall Street Journal
December 15, 2010
By Sue Shellenbarger

When art teacher Kandy Dea recently assigned fourth-graders in her Walnut, Iowa, classroom to create a board game to play with a friend, she was shocked by one little boy's response: He froze.

While his classmates let their imaginations run wild making up colorful characters and fantasy worlds, the little boy said repeatedly, "I can't think of anything," Ms. Dea says. Although she reassured him that nothing he did would be judged "wrong," he tried to copy another student's game, then asked if he could make a work sheet instead. She finally gave him permission to make flash cards with right-and-wrong answers.

Americans' scores on a commonly used creativity test fell steadily from 1990 to 2008, especially in the kindergarten through sixth-grade age group, says Kyung Hee Kim, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. The finding is based on a study of 300,000 Americans' scores from 1966 to 2008 on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, a standardized test that's considered a benchmark for creative thinking. (Dr. Kim's results are currently undergoing peer review to determine whether they will be published in a scholarly journal.)

The Torrance tests have been used in the U.S. and abroad for decades and are often used in schools to determine which children are admitted to gifted programs. The test is considered a reliable indicator of divergent thinking—the ability to generate many different, new and appropriate ideas, says James C. Kaufman, an associate professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernadino, and an author on creativity. However, he says it falls short in measuring other dimensions of creativity, such as the ability to put these ideas to work to make new and useful products.

Researchers believe growth in the time kids spend on computers and watching TV, plus a trend in schools toward rote learning and standardized testing, are crowding out the less structured activities that foster creativity. Mark Runco, a professor of creative studies and gifted education at the University of Georgia, says students have as much creative potential as ever, but he would give U.S. elementary, middle and high schools "a 'D' at best" on encouraging them. "We're doing a very poor job, especially before college, with recognizing and supporting creativity," he says.

Many parents are stepping into the breach by nurturing their kids' creative skills. They are challenging them to generate new ideas or encouraging them to notice problems in the world around them and research possible solutions. By tolerating "wrong" answers or allowing their children to live in a fantasy world for a while, parents can put off the emphasis on skill-building and achievement, researchers say.

In the past, researchers thought of creativity as the ability to generate lots of new ideas. But in recent years, experts have begun assigning equal importance to learning how to pick the best ideas and solve specific problems, often by working in teams.

Some parents are signing their children up for programs designed to foster creativity. One such program, Destination ImagiNation, Cherry Hill, N.J., is an educational nonprofit that involves nearly 100,000 students in annual competitions. Volunteer coaches guide teams of up to seven kids, grouped by age from kindergarten through college, who work together after school to come up with creative solutions. They're given projects like designing weight-bearing structures from foil, wood and glue, solving a community problem or, for small children, creating a play about bugs to show how they interact with nature and animals. Similar programs include Odyssey of the Mind, Sewell, N.J., and Future Problem-Solving Program International, Melbourne, Fla.

To nurture creative skills at home, parents can invite children to come up with possible solutions for everyday problems, and listen to their ideas with respect, says Don Treffinger, president of the Center for Creative Learning, a Sarasota, Fla., consulting group. A child who notices that an ailing neighbor is snowed in might shovel her sidewalks, for example. A child who is troubled by photos of Haitian disaster victims might donate allowance money to a relief fund.

Asking open-ended questions and showing interest in answers can help. When Meg Richey sat down a couple of years ago to write a speech about activist Rosa Parks, her opening was a clunker: "Rosa Parks was an important person in American history," says Meg, now 10. "It was dull."

But after her father Brett, of Charlottesville, Va., a volunteer coach for several Destination ImagiNation teams, praised her effort, encouraged her to dig deeper and asked open-ended questions about how she might improve it, Meg says, she thought up a new introduction: "Can you imagine being kicked out of your seat just because of the color of your skin?" The speech was a winner at a youth-group competition. Now, Meg says she goes through the same process on her own when she writes. "I ask myself all the questions my dad asked, and it gets the creative juices flowing," she says.

Parents also need to refrain from judging kids' ideas, even if they seem crazy or naive. When Linda Rice's son Jacob, 10, told her last spring that he wanted to make a lot of money writing, publishing and selling a global newspaper and an accompanying website, she listened, then asked a few questions. Who would be the best people to ask first to buy subscriptions, the Plover, Wis., mother and former teacher asked. Drawing on her past experience working with gifted students, Ms. Rice encouraged him to think about what kinds of stories he would include.

Jacob decided to limit his early subscription sales to family members and friends. When he ran out of ideas for stories, Ms. Rice prompted him with questions about what readers might enjoy, and Jacob decided to make up some puzzles. His eight-page newspaper had a successful four-month run with 10 subscribers, earning him $90 before he lost interest, Ms. Rice says.

It is best to avoid paying too much attention to the outcome of kids' creative efforts, says Dr. Kaufman, the professor. "The more emphasis put on the final product—'It's so beautiful I'm going to frame it and tell my friends about it,' " he says, the greater is "the risk that the kid is going to do pictures for the praise, and not for the enjoyment." Instead, emphasize effort over results.

When Maureen Dougherty's three kids were small, she and her husband Brian encouraged them to make up their own lyrics and dances to nursery rhymes, says Ms. Dougherty, of Stephens City, Va. Hearing Mr. Dougherty and the kids laughing one night years ago, Ms. Dougherty opened a door to find them stumbling around with their eyes closed, singing original lyrics to "The Three Blind Mice."

After inventing spontaneous lyrics for years, their children, now 14, 18 and 20, enjoy public speaking and "can think of things to say right off the cuff," Ms. Dougherty says.

Raising a creative child can be taxing. Such kids tend to have above-average "spontaneity, boldness, courage, freedom and expressiveness," Dr. Kim says. So they sometimes behave like little anarchists.

Parents can explain when it is OK to be whimsical, and when they have to toe the line, Dr. Kaufman says. If your child loves to parody lyrics to children's songs, for example, "you have to let them laugh and giggle," and then explain that "you shouldn't do this at school," he says.

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