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I stepped on a Lego this morning. It was excruciating, as always. I step on Legos most mornings and do my best not to swear in front of my son.

He has a bad habit of learning words we don’t want him to. So holding in my pain as a tiny brick stabs through the bottom of my foot into my soul is challenging.

But I’m glad he has Legos to play with because they let him use his imagination.

So do his Spider-Man action figures and his HotWheels. Listening to him pretend with his toys is one of the highlights of my day – every day. He gets embarrassed, but I get proud.

I don’t want my son to lose his imagination and creativity as I did.

Schools kill creativity

“All kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them, pretty ruthlessly.”

— Sir Ken Robinson (TED)

In one of my favorite TED Talks of all time, Sir Ken Robinson makes the argument that schools kill creativity with their Science, Math and Language focus.

I have to agree with him. I was fortunate that my high school had (past-tense) fairly well-funded Arts Departments (Visual, Musical, Theatrical). But it was still a very technical-oriented school. I had language, math and science classes all four years of my attendance.

Now, that same school system has cut funding for the arts, and Kentucky public schools are ranked below average in College Readiness, Math, and Reading. But they still have a very high graduation rate. I wonder how that is.

I don’t want to shame any educators out there. You do the best with the systems in place. I just don’t want that for my children.

Right and wrong.

Art funding isn’t the only way schools are killing creativity. Schools kill creativity by eliminating the chance to solve problems – by always having a “right” or “wrong” answer for technical-focused activities.

Don’t misunderstand – there are right and wrong answers in math. I don’t like the “show your work and you’ll get it right” approach. Some topics do have “right” and “wrong.” But when opened to the possibility, kids will take a chance to solve problems in science, art, even engineering.

Hell, the Scientific Method is a beautiful framework for creative problem-solving. But on the test, you have the right answers and wrong answers.

And so kids are trained to get the reward from being “right” all the time, and they develop a fear of being “wrong.” They stop taking risks, which slowly smothers their creativity.

What’s a parent to do?

As a parent, I’m concerned about my kids’ futures. So I set out before my son was born to find solutions to the problems of public education.

Unfortunately, as an individual, I don’t have the power to change public education. But I can change my kids’ learning opportunities. Homeschooling was always an interesting option, but state-funded homeschool programs follow a similar curriculum – with few opportunities for creativity.

In my research, I eventually discovered interesting concepts like the Free School Movement and the idea of “unschooling” my children.

Letting my son learn things that interested him at his own pace and providing support for mentorships seems like a great idea to me!

My gameplan in a nutshell.

I’m a huge supporter of the mentor/apprentice model. It worked for a very, very long time. Now children have the unique opportunity for a custom-tailored education using the internet as a support system.

With tools like Khan Academy, my children have access to all of the general education that they could ever want. But I’m more excited about offering open-ended play. Because play is incredibly important.

Creative play encourages creative thinking. So I provide my kids with activities based on their interests. This means I have to listen to my kids to find out what they want or need. So I’m bonding with my kids WHILE they learn to problem-solve.

Of course, I’m an artist, but being creative is more than drawing or painting. The possibilities are endless. I want my kids to explore and problem-solve, so they get time to plan, design and experiment with their ideas. Especially with those cursed Lego blocks.

And when they develop a strong interest in a topic or skill, I will find tutors and mentors who can guide them better than I can.

Playtime comes first.

I let my kids imagine without upsetting them. And — according to Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina — encouraging this imagination, open-ended play, and problem-solving will help my kids be:

  • More creative. On average they came up with three times as many nonstandard creative uses for specific objects (a standard lab measure) as did controls. 

  • Better at language. The children’s use of language was more facile. They displayed a richer store of vocabulary and a more varied use of words. […]

  • Better at memory. Play situations improved memory scores; for example, kids who pretended they were at the supermarket remembered twice as many words on a grocery list as controls. 

  • More socially skilled. The social-buffering benefits of play are reflected in the crime statistics of inner-city kids. If low-income kids were exposed to play-oriented preschools in their earliest years, fewer than 7 percent had been arrested for a felony by age 23. For children exposed to instruction-oriented preschools, that figure was 33 percent.

Play is more than important, it’s essential. More essential than most parents realize. My kids get all the time they want in their playroom. My son gets to build a Jeep with a sail…because he can. And he gets to pretend to be a cat whenever he wants. My daughter has the freedom to crawl around the house wherever she wants to go (with supervision).

Don’t kill opportunities.

I never want to kill my son’s desire to move, to dance, to play, to imagine. He’s more energetic than most kids his age, and I love it. He could be an athlete, a dancer, a rock star. But only if I let him be creative, be energetic, and learn to think the way he thinks best.

My daughter has the potential to be whatever she wants to be – it’s too soon to tell what her interests are. But my wife and I do our best to provide her with all of the opportunities that we can.

As a parent, I’ll always be there to guide my kids in the direction that they want to go. I view my role as a parent-educator as more of an advisor and facilitator than a taskmaster. One day I’ll be able to look at my kids and know that, regardless of where they end up, I did my best to raise independent, creative, curious members of society.

I hope you’ll do the same. Get creative, yourself. How can you help your kids become more creative?

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