Picture a brick. Okay, got it? Now stretch your mind and come up with a list of possible uses for that brick (besides building a wall). Stumped? You're not alone. That question -- or a variation on it -- is part of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, which many school districts nationwide have used for the last 45 years to measure kids' originality and imagination. After consistently rising for decades, American kids' scores began a steady decline in 1990. If you think that's no big deal, consider this: In a recent IBM poll, 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the single most important trait for leaders of the future.
That doesn't mean you should worry if your child isn't building elaborate Lego cities or can't draw anything more advanced than stick figures. Creativity isn't just about being an architect or an artist; it's about how you use your mind. From the Stone Age innovator who took two flints and sparked fire to the inventors who studied sand and conceived the silicon chip, out-of-the-box thinking has transformed the world we live in. And it's likely to be even more important in the coming decades, as we try to solve a host of complex problems: how to develop novel energy sources; bring peace to unstable regions; and find better and more affordable ways to treat diseases.
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.
Pick a Balanced Preschool
Look for a program that provides a mix of play and academics, suggests Ilene Val-Essen, Ph.D., author of Bring Out the Best in Your Child and Yourself. Don't take the director's word for it, though -- check out the classrooms. Is there lots of kids' artwork hanging up, or are the wall displays limited to letters, shapes, and numbers? You should see plenty of props to promote imaginative play, such as sand tables, dress-up clothes, and puppets. If possible, watch a teacher in action. Rather than directing every activity, she should give the children "choice time," when they can pick their own. And instead of handing out worksheets, she should make learning more fun by having kids practice "writing" letters in sand or even in shaving cream.
Help Kids Brainstorm Their Own Solutions
Problem-solving is an essential aspect of creative thinking, which is why you need to step back and let your child find the answers, whether he's fitting model train tracks together or navigating a maze. When 6-year-old Mia Laurenti, of Charlotte, North Carolina, is frustrated because a toy isn't working properly, her mom, Helene, asks open-ended questions to spark solutions: "I know you're upset because we're missing some game pieces. How might we play it without them?"
Mix Things Up
Try a surprise ending to a favorite story (maybe the three bears invite Goldilocks to a sleepover), and then challenge your child to come up with a twist of her own. Ask her what might make a routine meal more exciting, within reason (a peanut butter-and-applesauce sandwich, perhaps?). Take a new route to a familiar destination, and point out the things you see along the way. Introduce unexpected arts-and-crafts materials and have her suggest some of her own. If your kids are old enough, try spelling a word backward and have them figure out what it is. "Activities like these stretch their minds and jump-start their creativity," says Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., a New York City psychologist.
A study from The University of Texas at Austin found that the more time a child spends in front of the TV, the less he plays creatively. A kid who watches three hours per day might engage in fantasy play, art projects, and other imaginative endeavors a third less than one who doesn't watch any. "When a child is watching TV or playing video games, he's being entertained by somebody else's imagination and not using his own," says Dr. Miller. Cut your kids' TV, computer, and handheld game use to two hours maximum per day, and ignore the "I'm bored" complaints. The first time Carol Barnier, of New Fairfield, Connecticut, declared a screen-free day, her three kids protested. "But after an hour of flopping about and whining, their monotony catapulted them into activity," she recalls. Over the years, her strategy has inspired them to construct a medieval village from blocks and come up with their own written language based on symbols they invented.
Provide Low-Tech Toys
Art supplies, dolls, and kid-propelled cars can be used in limitless ways. "A good toy is 95 percent child and 5 percent toy," says Joan Almon, founding director of the Alliance for Childhood. Emerald Earls, of Portland, Oregon, regularly asks her 9-year-old son, Clayton, if he can devise new uses for old playthings. "He's made up his own games using dominoes, marbles, and balls," she says. And when he needed to bone up on second-grade math, he invented an adding and subtracting game using a deck of cards.
Get Into Nature
Think of the outdoors as one giant toy box, offering the sort of diversions -- sticks, stones, feathers, bugs -- that stimulate creativity. Make sure your kids spend time in the woods, the park, or your own backyard without close supervision. "The freedom to explore outside, whether alone or with friends, can really inspire kids," says Elizabeth Goodenough, Ph.D., editor of Secret Spaces of Childhood.
Kids who develop an intense interest in a particular subject tend to be more creative. Help your child develop one by reading books about a broad range of topics (nature, science fiction, history), visiting museums, listening to different music genres, and attending festivals celebrating various cultures and ethnic groups. "Studies of creative professionals in architecture, mathematics, and other disciplines have found that they had been exposed to lots of different ideas as kids and then discovered the singular thing that they love," says Gerard J. Puccio, Ph.D., chair of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State University, in New York. But don't push your own passion on your child. Encourage her to come up with her own unique hobbies and novel approach to things. The kid who devises new rules for hopscotch today might help find the solution to world hunger in 2025.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Parents magazine.