Monday, August 2

A crisis in creativity?

The cover story in the July 19 issue of Newsweek was titled "The Creativity Crisis." I read the first few paragraphs and immediately decided that if there is in fact a crisis in creativity we can blame the Internet, television, and texting though I suppose we should throw in video games for good measure. I thought a little more--having read no further, by the way--and decided we should also blame the lack of time kids spend outdoors or indoors pretending and making up their own games.

I remember when the swing set in my backyard was a fort or a community of treehouses (probably after I'd read Swiss Family Robinson) or part of a 3-ring circus or just an obstacle course. I remember making up games with my friends and all of us contributing to the rules and changing the rules when we were losing or it was no longer fun, or just changing the game entirely. I remember hanging out reading comic books and then making up re-enactments of some of the comic book stories, if we could, and then just going off on our own tangents. (Having houses being built in the neighborhood helped some of those games, by the way. They were one-story homes--I grew up in Florida--and we could often get in and play around in the frames. I'm sure the builders loved that.) So I was somewhat convinced that because I was somewhat forced to be imaginative at play, I'm somewhat more creative today. And yes, the qualifiers are deliberate because, compared to many of my colleagues, I don't think I'm that creative. Okay, so back to the article.

I read a bit more of the article and I must say that I vacillated in my response: agreed, disagreed, bellowed that something was preposterous, thoughtfully admitted there could be some merit to an idea, and so on and so on (and scooby dooby doo-bee).

I kept thinking about kids I've been around and worked with. I remember a kid a friend of mine adopted. She'd been in foster care and group homes from a young age and at the age of 9 seemed incapable of imagination. I remember saying "Let's pretend. . ." to her and getting a completely blank response from her. She had no clue how to pretend. But I worked with and taught other kids who absolutely amazed me with their creativity, with how they see things and see the world. And then I re-read the article, slowly and carefully.

And yes, the research and studies are interesting. I'm not crazy about some sort of test for creativity, and I disagreed that someone who chose not to incorporate a specific figure in a specific (pre-conceived?) way was less creative than others. Why was there specific criteria for incorporating a figure in a drawing to demonstrate creativity? Call me crazy, but aren't exacting rules for how something "ought" to be done antithetical to creativity?

To me, one of the important lines in the article in this one: "They lost interest because they stopped asking questions." The context is this: "Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. . . By middle school they've pretty much stopped asking. It's no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet."

So we want kids to be lifelong learners. What do learners do? Ask questions. Maybe they don't articulate specific questions, but what drives learners to learn is an unanswered question, that inevitably leads to other unanswered questions. What drives learners are the "what if?" moments of life. What drives learners are the moments of recognition that perhaps, just perhaps what they've just read or just heard or just seen is not quite all there is and maybe there is more to know or hear or see or do or be.

I was formulating my thinking on this idea of creativity, who is creative, and what encourages or promotes creativity when I read "Building a Better Playground" in the August 9 issue of TIME. Playgrounds today, as you probably know, are insurance litigation nightmares, or so we might be led to believe. No more jungle gyms--a kid could fall off and get hurt; no more of those carousel things that you had to hang onto while someone else pushed the thing around as fast as it could go and if you held on and leaned over backwards you could get really, really dizzy. I'm surprised they still have swings because you know kids can try to jump off those things when they swing really high. Okay, the article subtitle is: "Swings and slides don't foster much creativity. Why cities are joining the loose-parts revolution." Sigh, and balderdash. Swings and slides don't foster much creativity because kids aren't encourage to pretend or make-believe that inanimate objects, like a swingset, can be a house on stilts and the ground below is really water filled with stuff that could eat you. . . until you fell and then the ground was a dense underbrush or a desert or whatever we wanted it to be. (See above about changing rules; applies to pretending, too.)

According to this article, parents and kids are dissatisfied with swings and slides only playgrounds. No, duh. So someone has created foam blocks that kids can play with so kids can. . . wait for it. . ."make anything children can think of--a car, a river, a fort, a flower--and are deliberately big so kids will be more likely to assist each other with them" (p. 46) -- or fight over them or whatever, but let's not quibble. So it costs roughly $6K for the Imagination Playground blocks and then there might be additional expense of "play associates" who are "tasked with making sure kids use the equipment safely and, with any luck, keeping helicopter parents from hovering too close" at a rate of about $15 per hour. Play associates?

So remember when I mentioned reading comic books and Swiss Family Robinson and how my friends' play and mine seemed to stem, in some part, from some imaginative recreation of what we'd read and then just working with what we had and going from there? We didn't have "play associates" but our parents weren't helicopter parents either.

I don't think we have a crisis of creativity. I think we have a paralysis of allowing kids, encouraging kids to play, to ask ridiculous questions and then courage them to try to figure out an answer to that ridiculous question. I think we are too quick to shut down the ridiculous because it is ridiculous instead of exploring where the question came from and where it could go, which might not be at all ridiculous. I think we have so structured every nanosecond of a kid's life that he doesn't have to time wonder and wonder and dreams are the stuff of creativity. And one of the saddest things to me is that we seem to think that being silly is silly and a waste of time. When grown-up stop celebrating silliness and wonder and the occasionally ridiculous question, we stop celebrating and encouraging creativity.