A Downward Trend
In a country that has traditionally placed a premium on ingenuity, why are our kids falling behind? Many experts believe that our educational system bears a big share of the blame. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which mandates that schools make annual progress toward bringing all students up to the "proficient" level on state tests or be subject to government sanctions, has altered the fundamental learning dynamic. In many school systems, the need to "teach to the test" has led to the elimination of art classes, electives, foreign language and science programs, and even recess, depriving kids of numerous creative outlets. "The emphasis on rote learning over critical thinking has diminished students' natural curiosity and joy of learning," says Kyung Hee Kim, Ph.D., associate professor of educational psychology at The College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia.
This trend isn't only influencing tweens and teens. The intense pressure to raise standardized test scores in reading and math has filtered down to kindergarten and preschool, where kids have traditionally been able to indulge their natural need to learn through play. "Our misguided expectations have young children focus on a lesson or curriculum. But instruction geared toward getting the right answer undermines creativity and spontaneity," says Edward Miller, executive director of the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization in New York City.
And it's not only schools that are stifling our kids. We're part of the problem too. Our need to schedule activities -- sports leagues, music instruction, dance classes, academic-enrichment courses -- leaves less time for kids to do, well, nothing. Too often, rather than pushing children to entertain themselves by breaking out some action figures or painting, we let them spend their precious free moments watching TV or playing on the computer. Ideally, you should encourage your kid to pretend and explore on his own without distractions for at least 30 minutes every day. "Letting your child's mind wander without any particular destination lets new ideas emerge," says Rex Jung, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. But what can you do to get him to play along? These steps will help unlock his creative side.