Creating Creative Kids

Back in the 1950’s, a psychologist in Minnesota began a series of ground breaking studies on a group of 400 children who came to be known as the “Torrance kids.” The psychologist, Paul Torrance, was intent on gaining the knowledge base needed to understand and foster the creative personality. An 8 year old boy in that initial study recalls that Torrance handed him a fire truck and asked, “How could you improve this toy to make it better and more fun to play with?” The notes from that session indicate that the child easily came up with 25 improvements. That “subject,” who eventually became a leader in industry, was described by Torrance as having an “unusual visual perspective” and “an ability to synthesize diverse elements into meaningful products.”

Those words, which are music to parents’ ears, fit the generally accepted view of creativity as a form of inspiration that leads to novelty—coming up with ideas that are original, insightful, unique and so on. This focus is valid, but it overlooks an important dimension that is also key to this highly valued behaviour. That aspect of creativity is captured in a comment by the famous scientist, Louis Pasteur, who said,  “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

For parents interested in fostering their children’s creativity, this is a very valuable idea. No parent or educator can ensure that a child has the gift  of seeing the world in unique ways. But adults can foster their development by providing a fertile garden where creative ideas can grow.

So what are the essential elements of that garden?

1. Provide opportunities to interact with adults who are excited and interested by ideas. When creative people are asked about their early upbringing, invariably what comes up are memories of seeing and interacting with dynamic people who conveyed a love for something that excited them. Often these are their parents. For example, the father of Steve Wozniak, one of the co-founders of Apple, was an electrical engineer, who helped his son build electronic gadgets. Mentors can also come from outside the family. The key is finding an adult who is interested in the child and able to impart both joy and skill in learning.

2. Permit the child to spend time exploring their interests without pressure or judgment. We live in a very demanding time with standards that can be very anxiety provoking for parents and children alike. Even preschoolers are now being prepped for tests to get into the “best schools.” This type of climate is antithetical to the self-paced, steady exploration needed for playing around with ideas which is the foundation of creativity. It’s essential to ensure that a child has the time he or she needs to discover the amazing phenomena that life provides.

3. Praise judiciously. Parents often believe that praise is a key to success. But recent research has shown that it can have the opposite effect. In the book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University shows that children’s performance worsens if they always hear how smart they are. Kids who get too much praise are less likely to take risks, are highly sensitive to failure and are more likely to give up when faced with a challenge. Does this mean that you should transform yourself into a disinterested critic? No! But it does mean that you should think carefully about your use of praise and offer it judiciously. As a bonus, this will also lead your child to have much more respect for your judgment.

4. Limit time with hi-tech devices. The world of hi-tech is amazing and it is indispensable to our daily lives. However, many children are spending too much time with gizmos. For example, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average 8-18 year-old now spends 7-1/2 hours every day in front of a screen, including playing video games, watching TV, and surfing the internet. In terms of creativity, this closes off the children’s opportunities for exploration in the many other domains that they ought to be experiencing. For example, it’s common for kids in the two to five year range to be better able to play electronic games than to tie their shoelaces or ride a bike. Among their many responsibilities, parents have to closely monitor this area and create the guidelines that they feel are right for their children. In this quest, it can be useful to turn to a new book by Scott Steinberg titled The Modern Parent’s Guide Book.

5. Pay attention to sleep. Life today is fast-paced, busy and potentially exhausting. The National Sleep Foundation has reported that, as a nation, we work too hard, stay out too late, and try to get too much done in a day. We are going to sleep later and getting up earlier. Sadly, children are not exempt from these pressures. According to the Sleep Foundation’s survey, 60% of children ages 4-17 years old complained of feeling tired during the day.  Ensuring that your child has enough sleep is not an easy matter. However, the disadvantages of insufficient sleep for all aspects of life cannot be overstated. So think of ways to be creative in getting your child to get the sleep he or she needs.

Albert Einstein used to like to say that “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”  So please remember that all the suggestions above are meant to set the stage so that your child can gain the enormous joy that comes from using his or her creative intelligence.