Fostering Creativity

If you haven’t read ‘The 5 Best Toys of All Time‘ from Wired yet, you should.  As Jonathan Liu lists, in no particular order, they are:

  1. Stick
  2. Box
  3. String
  4. Cardboard Tube
  5. Dirt

I’m a big fan of this list, because I believe one of my big goals as a parent of a young child is to foster a healthy and creative imagination.  None of these understated objects are intrinsically fun.  They are, however, wildly popular with little kids because they are a canvas for their imaginations to run wild.  I spent hundreds of hours as a kid in my wooded backyard swashbuckling bracken ferns down to the ground with a sharp stick whose handle was wrapped with twine.  I also can’t remember a Halloween costume that I wore in elementary school that didn’t involve at least a box or cardboard tube.

Now that she’s a little older and beginning to play with versions of toys I remember as a kid, I’m a little disappointed by these new versions.  Take Legos for example.  Like me, you probably remember your Legos looking like this: Mine lived in a cardboard box – a rainbow of thousands of random pieces my mom would dump out on a sheet and I’d spend a rainy afternoon assembling them into cities, castles, towers etc.  Not so anymore.  Now each Legos set you buy is often tied in with a Hollywood franchise like Harry Potter or Star Wars.  God forbid you should mix up Legos from different sets.  Kids interacting with these sets are less like architects and more like carpenters following blueprints.

Playdough is the same way.  You probably remember making this salty stuff with your mom too, wondering what color food coloring might be in the drawer this time.  It looked like this and you didn’t dare forget to keep it covered in a plastic tub.

This is what kids play with now:

It’s like Henry Ford got into the toy business.  I also like how their lawyers had to tack on at the end that the “candy” is not to eat.  I made Josie play dough awhile back and we would sit at the table for a long time, her telling me what to make with animal sounds, which I was happy to do since she was still mastering ‘snake.’  Then we were gifted a Play-doh farm set, and now all she wants to do is stuff the commercial Play-doh into these little plastic molds of chickens.  I know her brain is learning some fine motor skills, and cause and effect, etc., but there’s no opening for imaginative play to go along with them anymore.

Here’s why I think all this is important: I believe that there is a brief window of time for people’s imaginations to develop, and it closes around the third or fourth grade.  Just ask yourself this – when did your drawing skills stagnate?  Unless you took a high school elective in the arts, for most of us, around 8 or 9 years old, right?  Imaginative play is vitally important to a workforce that increasingly demands the skills of creative people, yet we are failing to encourage these skills in school.

Since we were in school the focus on standardized testing has reduced the focus on individual expression and creative problem solving many of us enjoyed.  In fact a one study found that the creativity of schoolchildren, particularly kindergarteners through third grade, has decreased significantly since 1990.  It seems it’s up to parents to turn off the television when children come home and help cultivate creativity through play.  School will teach them how to crunch numbers, write essays, and memorize historical dates.  Sure, if your kid does these well, they’ll get into a good college, and from there they’ll get a job.  But after that it will be the creative problem solvers who produce new innovative things, not the worker drones, who are recognized for their talents.

So play with your kid and let your kid play.  Build a fort out of the couch cushions, or just take a stick and cover their crib with blankets.

Take some aluminum foil and let them make robot masks.  Play dress up and have a tea party.  Make a kite together.  Hand them some sidewalk chalk.  Play ‘pirates.’ Have Grandma make them a teepee like this one:
117

I say let them play in the dirt, or shoot marbles down through a cardboard tube all over the floor.  Don’t freak out if your son ties two sticks together with string and calls them “numbchunks.”  Make a stop on your way home to dumpster dive a bunch of cardboard boxes from the back of a McDonalds, and go home and make a box maze.  I stayed up the night before Josie’s first Christmas taping this thing together, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to give a gift before or since.  Next time, though, I’m definitely going to be on the hunt for some really big cardboard tubes.

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One thought on “Fostering Creativity

  1. Chris, I totally agree. We played outside everyday. When I was a wee bit older than Josie.
    We would come in and eat, and than go back outside till the street lights came on. I lived in a whole neighborhood of kids. Had a great childhood. Josie will too, cuz there are some many people who love her.

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