Creativity and Play

Recently a news report garnered some attention because it reported that today’s children are becoming less creative for the first time in recent history.   There are many potential villains — television is the standard entity to blame, but if it were the cause lack of creativity would have come about long ago.   Game stations with structured games are listed as a problem, as well as ‘no child left behind’ with a focus on teaching to the test rather than teaching to think.  In general, I think two things push children to a less creative point: a) too much structure instead of free play, and b) adults so worried that their children ‘get ahead’ and ‘succeed’ that they stifle play.    Now they’re selling products to teach babies to start reading at six months.   Parents think this will help their child become especially intelligent and successful so they buy the product.  But really – who needs to read at six months?

One thing good for children is if they go to a quality child care center that emphasizes play (not some kind of pre-school boot camp).   Now, let me preface my argument with a caveat — if parents can afford to have one stay home, and if there are numerous other kids available to play and a wide range of activities and learning, then that’s just as good if not better than day care.  However, if it’s just the parent and child/children, without play and consistent interaction with other kids, then I suspect the child would be better off at a good day care center.

This goes in the face of a lot of what our society has been used to.   Moms used to stay home with kids, and it was with reluctance and a sense of guilt that mothers would give their children to someone else for care.   Now mothers and fathers tend to share household duties, including raising kids, and often both work.   I know in our household gender is irrelevant to who cleans, cares for the kids, or does the chores.   Our boys do not think of any kind of job as more appropriate to women then men.

But today’s American family structure is a weird modern non-traditional arrangement.  In the past families were clan like, with numerous brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and other relatives in abundance.  Children would congregate and play, probably watched by a team of women from the village while others would work.   Traditionally women had a lot of work too, so it’s likely that in much of world it was a small group of women specializing in watching the kids at play.   In other words, traditional life had the functional equivalent of day care centers.

Kids would learn to interact with other kids, and develop a sense of social connectedness.  They were not part of one nuclear family isolated in a large house and white picket fence.  Play did not depend upon complicated negotiations for play dates or walks to the local play ground.  Play was on going, connected with learning.   Of course, traditional societies defined learning differently — you learned the customs of the people and various skills.   That kind of learning is easy through play.

Now a days, too many of us are isolated from family and even close friends.   To compensate for lack of activities, the tendency is to structure activities for children.  Lessons, organizations like boy scouts, sports, and other events become part of a structured routine where kids go from one place to another, often lacking time for real creative play.   No wonder at home it’s relaxing for them to play video games or surf the web.

As kids get older, we need to recognize the danger of stress.   Stress is something adults deal with on a daily basis — stress at work, in relationships, with children, etc.  It’s well known that stress causes weight gain, poor health, and contributes to psychological ills like depression and anxiety.   In adults, it’s a killer.  In children it damages development.    When adults over-schedule children, put pressure on them to “be the best” and try to shape them through too many lessons, activities and demands, this increases stress and pushes children into a “follow the routine” mood.  That not only stifles creativity, but takes away time for the fun creative free play children need.

In schools now thanks to programs like “no child left behind” stress increases to study for the test, and learn quickly.  Parents often feed that by wanting their children on the top.   This stresses out teachers (that’s been widely documented — no child left behind has been dubbed ‘no teacher left standing’) and that isn’t good for their pupils.  Moreover, learning becomes less about creative problem solving and truly learning to navigate the world, but rote memorization and preparation for questions expected on exams.   This might yield students with a bit more book knowledge, but less creativity and problem solving capacity.

Don’t get me wrong — as a college teacher I see students come into a World Politics class with no understanding of the world and no foreign language background.   That should be unacceptable in the current era, and I often feel like I need to teach a lot of high school level world history just to get them to understand the concepts of modern international relations study.  I’m all for improving quality of writing and knowledge, and holding teachers accountable.   But that should not be done on the backs of pupils.

Still, I can accept a need for a bit of that in high schools.   But even third and forth graders find themselves being pushed to fulfill particular academic expectations.   That isn’t right.  Yes, the schools and teachers should be held accountable, but the stress and pressure should not be felt by the pupils. Learning through play and creative fun is possible — when my seven year old tears through “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” in one day, I know he’s not being pushed.   Math games can be fun.  There are ways to assess without big standardized pressure filled tests.

So when people look at children for the first time showing less creativity, I say it’s because we’ve pushed one of the greatest ills of our modern age — stress and all its consequences — on to children, harming their development and stifling creativity.    Especially until age 12, play is more important than anything else — and learning through play is the best way, it enhances both knowledge and creativity.  If learning isn’t fun, who would want to be a life long learner?

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