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Children today show signs of being less creative

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

This is probably not what parents would like to hear, but psychology researchers are finding that today’s children are becoming less and less creative. Along with research pointing to the younger generation being less empathic and more entitled, the findings are compounding the depressing news about what we might be doing wrong in our children’s upbringing and education.

Kyung Hee Kim, a creativity researcher at the College of William and Mary, found creativity has decreased among American children in recent years. She surveyed about 300,000 creativity tests going back to the 1970s and found that since 1990, children have become less able to produce unique and unusual ideas, are less humorous, less imaginative and less able to elaborate on ideas.

While creativity may be innate, it needs to be nurtured and practiced in order to thrive. Without practiced habit, like any skill or ability, creativity will eventually atrophy. And clearly the world as we have constructed it for our children is actively encouraging this withering.

Ron Beghetto, an education psychologist at the University of Oregon says that creativity can be suppressed in particular contexts. So the big question facing us is, what are those contexts?

Beghetto feels we ought to take a hard look at our obsession with testing standards, for one. The current focus on testing in schools, and the idea that there is only one right answer to a question, may be hampering development of creativity among kids, he says. "There's not much room for unexpected, novel, divergent thought.”

In the current study, Kim analyzed results from the Torrance test, an exam that measures an aspect of creativity called divergent thinking. In this test, kids might be shown two circles and asked to draw something out of these shapes. These tasks are scored on the following three dimensions:

• Fluency – The total number of interpretable, meaningful and relevant ideas generated in response to the stimulus.
• Originality – The statistical rarity of the responses among the test subjects.
• Elaboration – The amount of detail in the responses.

Tellingly, scores on the Torrance test have been decreasing while SAT scores are increasing, which fact supports Beghetto’s theory. Higher test scores do not correlate with greater creativity because while you can do well on a test by studying a lot, it will not encourage original thinking.

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Kim also agrees that No Child Left Behind, an act of Congress passed in 2001 that requires schools to administer annual standardized tests as a way to assess whether they are meeting state education standards, may be partly responsible for the drop in creativity scores. "I believe No Child Left Behind … really hurt creativity," Kim said. "If we just focus on just No Child Left Behind — testing, testing, testing — then how can creative students survive?" Kim said.

Kim also named other possible culprits, such as a rise in TV watching, which is passive, does not promote social interaction and is time spent away from imaginative play.

Research shows that creativity tends to decline with adulthood as a matter of natural course, so it is doubly tragic to see it curtailed in childhood. As adults, our awareness of the notions of right and wrong tend to curb our creative impulses, but such a development is a natural developmental trajectory. A child’s world ought to be protected against premature incursions of adult rigidity, because childhood creativity potentially leads to engaging future careers and pursuits. These have a foundation in the wellspring of creative energies.

"If this trend continues then students who look different, nonconformists, will suffer, because they are not accepted," Kim said. Research shows that if creative personalities don't adjust to the school system, they can become underachievers and drop out of school, she said.

Researchers in childhood development are unanimous about the importance of down time and pretend-play in children’s lives. They say that a typical child today is over-scheduled with pre-planned activities or homework. What kids need more of is self-agency and the opportunity to engage spontaneous, interactive play.

Sandra Russ, a psychologist at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio, who was not involved in Kim's study, said that elements of insight, fantasy and emotional expression all go into this type of story-making. The good news is that when Russ looked at studies on pretend play since 1985, she found that children have become more imaginative in the type and number of creative ideas and emotions expressed.

The results do not necessarily contradict Kim's findings. The researchers can't be sure whether kids will actually apply their playtime imagination to the real world, Russ said. The results suggest kids are resilient, and may be finding ways to develop these abilities through other means besides strict playtime. But they are definitely not applying them at school.

Beghetto said the interaction between students and teachers has become one of "intellectual hide and seek." The students try to match what they think the teacher wants to hear. Teachers, in turn, are increasingly hampered by what they feel they can, or have time, to teach or explore. Vast amounts of time are spent each school year on the standardized test prep. NCLB has teachers and parents so terrorized, some schools even implement sleeping and snacking recommendations on the eve of a test.

Where is there room for spontaneous creativity in that kind of atmosphere?