What is Creativity and how can we spark it in our kids? The July 19th Newsweek cover story “Creativity in America” has stirred a lot of discussion in past weeks on the origins of Creativity and a recent study that shows Creativity declining in the United States for the first time. Torrance scores, a measure of our CQ or “Creative Quotient”, have risen consistently in America since testing began in the 1950’s until about 1990. Since then, scores have shown a significant downward trend, particularly in young children ages 4-10. While IQ is generally considered to be the gold standard for intelligence metrics in the US, the correlation between lifetime creative achievement and childhood CQ is actually three times stronger.
Clearly, this study poses concerning implications for our educational system and raises many questions for educators, parents, and designers of children’s media. The Cooney Center, Sesame Workshop’s research center for children’s media, is currently running a three-part blog series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) addressing many of these questions and promoting digital media tools that encourage creativity at a young age. Given our focus on Creative Learning here at Launchpad Toys, we’re proud to have contributed to the Cooney Center’s article and to have Toontastic featured in the report.
What is Creativity?
A creative idea is generally defined as something that is both novel and practical. Using cellophane to replace your car windshield would certainly be novel, for instance, but not necessarily practical. Our capacity to generate creative ideas depends on a cognitive ability known as Divergent Thinking – the ability to see things not for what they are, but for what they could be. At first glance, most people see a brick as a red, rectangular building material. When asked to generate “creative uses” for that brick, however, one might look beyond the brick’s aesthetic and symbolism to its base properties (heavy, compact, relatively impermeable) and determine that a brick could make an excellent paperweight, or even an anchor. Divergent Thinking relies heavily on two cognitive traits, Flexibility and Transformation. Flexibility is a measure of one’s ability to recognize properties of value in an object while Transformation represents one’s ability to transform said properties to fit other needs or capacities.
How do we develop Divergent Thinking skills?
Research has shown Divergent Thinking to be difficult to “teach”, but that open-ended creative activities like Imaginative Play, Art, and Creative Writing can help to improve these skills. These activities require kids to exercise both Flexibility and Transformation in working with symbolically ambiguous objects like clay, wooden blocks, and craft materials to create, direct, and act out their own fantasy worlds, characters, and storylines.
What has changed in the past 30 years to cause this decline in Creativity?
There are, of course, many hypotheses to explain these findings. For the sake of brevity, we’ll focus on two potential factors/causes that we’re particularly concerned about here at Launchpad Toys.
1. Standardized Testing
Budget Cuts and Assessment Policies like “No Child Left Behind” have been a debilitating one-two combo for Creative Learning in public education. As education becomes increasingly politicized and corporatized, Arts and extracurriculars have fallen by the wayside for lack of metrics. In short, there’s a pervasive mentality in Washington and in our boardrooms that if you can’t test it, it’s not worth teaching. By no means would we suggest that Art, Music, or Drama classes hold a monopoly on Creative Learning, but the more open-ended and constructivist nature of these classes does help to exercise Divergent Thinking skills. These classes tend to encourage kids to be producers of new ideas, techniques, and knowledge, and not just consumers of information.
2. Structured Play and Video Games
It’s important to note that Creative Learning doesn’t just occur in the classroom. In fact, the first (and arguably most important) development period for Divergent Thinking is during a child’s transition from the Sensorimotor Stage to the Concrete Stage of Operations, well before formal schooling begins. It’s during this time that children most frequently engage in Imaginative Play, which helps to exercise those cognitive abilities critical to Divergent Thinking.
Childhood has evolved dramatically over the past thirty years, particularly in the area of Play. Prior to the early 1980’s, the Toy Industry focused its production on ambiguous dolls, trucks, guns, and other toys that encourage Imaginative Play – relying on the child to design and enact their own fantasies using toys as props and story-starters. With the boom of children’s cartoons and entertainment in the early 80’s, however, the Toy Industry (and kids’ play) has shifted its focus to Transformers, GI Joes, Spongebob, and Dora – canned properties with which kids act out predefined scripts and characterizations rather than invent their own. As a result, Play has become more structured, entertainment-driven, and inherently less imaginative.
The advent of video games in this time is a compounding factor. Games have always been structured activities, but Video Games go a step further by limiting kids’ play interactions to just a few simple gestures. Up, down, left, right, A, B, Select, Start (any Contra fans out there?) is about as far from a paintbrush as one can get.
What can we do to reverse this trend and spark Creativity in our kids?
Fortunately, over the last few decades, educators and software designers have begun to take advantage of advances in computer technologies to move away from linear and scripted game experiences towards more open-ended and kid-directed software titles that challenge and empower kids’ Divergent Thinking skills. This new category of games and applications is often referred to as Constructionist Learning.
Constructionism is the learning theory most closely associated with creative education. Constructionist Learning Tools position users as active creators, designers, and builders of content and knowledge as opposed to passive recipients. The goal of these tools is to draw out a user’s implicit understanding of a subject and make it explicit through visual and physical representation so that the learner may better “debug” and revise his or her mental model. In this way, the software provides a mirror by which the user may evaluate his or her understanding: if the reflection of his or her ideas looks right, then the mental model is accurate; if the reflection is off, then the mental model must be revised.
Why is this so important to Creative Learning? Well, if kids learn best through this iterative design process known as “debugging”, then Constructionist Tools are the ultimate sandbox for Imaginative Play and a powerful way to improve Divergent Thinking skills. By enabling kids to quickly and easily design, test, redesign, and share advanced content with others, these tools structure and shorten the feedback loop for learning while providing subject-specific scaffolding/templates to teach proper techniques. Further, when combined with the distributive power of the Internet, Constructionist Learning tools open the door to broader audiences through online communities and greater opportunities for peer learning and collaboration.
At Launchpad Toys, we’re creating digital toys and tools that empower kids to create, learn, and share their ideas through play. Our goal is to encourage and exercise kids’ creativity through Imaginative Play and Constructionist Learning Tools and to give kids and parents alike a platform by which to share creative content with friends and family around the world. Our first product, Toontastic, will launch on the iPad this fall.