Ask yourself why so many companies see the need to invest in design thinking workshops and creativity training – it is because these companies might have very many “intelligent” people, but truly creative thinkers are few and far between. But the weird thing is that all of these smart people were creative, curious kids at one point in time. So what happened?
Decades of research on the ability for creative thinking has demonstrated a startling fact – creativity is not learned, it is unlearned. A large part of the reason for this is that formal education actively discriminates against most subjects that involve creative expression. At the top of the education system is mathematics and languages, then the humanities and at the bottom any subject involving true expressive or inventive creativity – art, dance and music for example.
Many educational policy makers now acknowledge that to prepare our children for the future, fostering creativity now needs to be seen as equally important as teaching numeracy and literacy. So we must reform education.
But there is a problem – educational reform takes time, and we are at risk of producing a lost generation of kids who are in school right now. So what do do?
It is my belief that we all must start acting RIGHT NOW by re-thinking the way we parent, mentor and coach kids. And here’s is some advice on how to do that.
Kids Need Stuff & Space to Play
One of the problems in the modern world is that the toy industry swamps kids with pre-built imagination. When most of us were kids, if you wanted to dress-up you went to the dress-up box. But today you can go to the toy store and find princesses and Darth Vader waiting. It is ready made. So we need to do less of that –I am not saying don’t buy your kids any toys, but give them the dress-up box full of old clothes and stuff bought from the charity shop. Give them the paper and the paints at their fingertips. How many of us give kids a digital device when we visit a restaurant today – how about providing paper and coloring pencils instead? Kids also need some space. So try to create a space in your home for kids to build their stuff. And what we also have to understand is that if kids are going to be creative, they need to have that space over time. Believe it or not, the worse thing that we can do is to ask a child to tidy up at the end of each play session.
Kids Need Time
What else is important is to give kids time. But not any kind of time – unstructured time. One of the problems with modern parenting is that we over structure our childrens’ time. School is followed by homework, followed by piano or dance lessons, followed by coached tennis practice. Kids need time to just play, without a plan or a time schedule. So send them outside, send them out to discover things for themselves. When your kids say “I’m bored” that’s great, as boredom is often the trigger for invention.
I used to work in London and lived next door to some very successful business people. Before meeting these people, he met their nanny in the garden one day, together with two young children aged about five and seven. The author asked the Nanny, “So Who are these two?” and without batting in eyelid, she said “Well she will be a lawyer, and he will be a banker.” We need to stop putting these big expectations on our kids. The way we used to define success in an industrial age economy was by what it said on a business card, and how much money people made. But success is much broader than that, and what many of us already know is that may of the world’s best innovators and entrepreneurs never finished university.
The other thing is that we should stop worrying that our kids are going to get kidnapped. In most countries in the world kidnapping is very unlikely, but these irrational fears mean that we stifle our kids freedom and desire to explore. Research clearly shows that children, and especially girls, who grow up with fearful parents, become fearful and anxious adults themselves. We need to give kids more freedom, more autonomy and trust. Earlier this year my son Ries hit a car on his bicycle. And of course I felt terrible, because the the driver of the car was badly traumatised. But Ries was wearing a helmet, and ended up with little more than a bruised ankle and scraped elbow. Does that accident mean that we are going to stop him riding his bike – of course not. Because scratches and scrapes and the occasional broken bone is a part of being a child.
Celebrate Creativity & Create a Safe Environment
The other thing we need to do is to celebrate creativity. How many books on creativity, art and music do you have at home? Because of my interest in art, my twelve-year-old daughter Hannah has become a big fan of the street artist Banksy, and we sometimes talk about the meaning of Banksy’s art. But I equally enthuse about creativity in other fields of endeavour too, including business.
Kids can be hard on each other, and research shows that one of the biggest killers of creative courage –the courage for children to explore and express themselves are their siblings and their friends. So we need to be aware of that. We need to explain to big brothers and sisters that they have a role to play in encouraging the creativity of the little ones.
Encourage Divergent Thinking
So much of formal education is about linear and formulaic thinking. That was what was needed in the old industrial world. But in a modern world it is much more about making sense of complexity, and that requires divergent thought. So one of the things that we can do with our kids, is to develop this ability for divergent thinking. And a wonderful way to do that is through riddles and brain teasers.
Health & Wellbeing
Now there is something else that is very, very important. It is about sport, and movement and rest. Because creativity is not just a brain function – it is a full body function. We have a substance in our body called dopamine, and amongst its many functions dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter. Dopamine is associated with mental alertness and creative thinking, and when kids exercise intensively they get a boost of dopamine. Sleep is also essential – while awake metabolism generates waste products in the brain which are damaging to cells. In sleep this metabolic rate decreases, allowing restorative processes to take over. School age children between 5 and 12 need between 9 and 11 hours of sleep, while teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours.
The fact is that today’s children are the entrepreneurs, inventors, leaders and digital winners of tomorrow. But there is a problem – the way that many children are being prepared for an increasingly complex world is woefully inadequate in terms of the ability to think creatively.
So let’s all act to help children to retain and grow their creative potential – and save all of that time and effort trying to re-ignite their creativity when they are “intelligent” grown-ups.
If you liked this blogpost, you might also like my TED Talk about Creative Parenting.