If you listened to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about “How Schools Kill Creativity” , you would assume most children enter school tremendously talented and creative and exit at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is an entertaining talk, including naive quips from children that could easily fit into Art Linkletter’s (and later Bill Cosby’s) program Kids Say the Darndest Things.
Robinson makes the assumption that the unusual things children say is evidence of creativity. However this idea is never supported during his talk. Sometimes children’s “unique” sayings are a result of misunderstanding language. At other times they are concrete interpretation of abstract things they have been told.
Robinson also fails to explain why there is a noticeable percentage of students that not only remain creative but increase in creative production while in school. These students are in the same schools that turn out the uncreative students that Robinson feels are being prepared for work based on the industrial revolution. (In reality, subjects currently taught in school more closely reflect those taught to the upper class when only the wealthy were educated and almost everyone else learned a trade.)
But, back to the question of whether or not children are actually more creative than adults. When student in schools take the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, the scores tend to be higher for older students. This was confirmed by a study from the University of Catania, Italy, testing a sample of 112 Italian school children. The older children scored significantly higher was elaboration .
Longitudinal studies of children’s creative development in the United States, using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking and the Test of Creative Feeling show a slump in creative ability between fourth and sixth grade followed by an increase in creativity between grades six and nine. that is marked by cognitive elaboration . The Test of Creative Thinking require that something be produced and refined based on original ideas. This is a more demanding definition of creativity than simply connecting it to talking about unusual ideas.
Edward de Bono, author of six hat thinking system, theorizes that childlike or natural creativity is based on suspending judgment of prior knowledge. Of course, children do not have nearly as much prior knowledge as adults. This kind of creativity “does not depend as much on preconceived rules, seeing things as they appear and not as we know them.”  However he finds it is not very powerful either, because the creativity that changes society is an unnatural process. It cuts across the patterns that have been formed. A person must intentionally change their perception in order to do this.
When interviewing students who had continued studies in creative areas in higher education, I heard their ideas on childhood creativity expressed. Many students felt that their ideas were “more wild and far out” as children. However, they did not know how to produce these ideas. As they got older their creativity became more practical and more useful. Perseverance was the characteristic that they saw dividing the more creative students from the less, not avoiding indoctrination from education.
Very young children are necessarily “creative” because, for one, they have not yet learned how to copy. Secondly, parents usually only criticize behavior in the very young and are thrilled with their child’s first attempts at drawing and painting (only one example, but one that is often used to illustrate children’s creativity). By 4th grade most children have learned that they will generally receive more praise from both their contemporaries and the adults in their lives for skillfully executed copies (art) than for original work. This is not particularly true for writing, but far fewer children write original poems and stories than draw and paint. Children invent stories in their play but usually do not write them. Conformity is rewarded by adults when children are young and by peers during adolescence. People expect more from adults, so many adults shy away from exhibiting their amateur creative efforts or give up trying to be creative. I don’t think the schools are especially to blame; in fact, children may be more encouraged to be creative in school than at home. The most creative adults are much more creative than the most creative children because they have so much more to draw from (pun intended), but as a senior (the old kind, not the college kind), I see very little high level creativity in the adult population as a whole. One reason for this is that adults tend to be product oriented as opposed to process oriented, and it is much easier to copy – a pattern, a recipe, a model, etc. – than to create from scratch.
My daughter, who is studying art, says she had more far out ideas as a child, but didn’t have the skill to produce them. Schools tend to take the conformist side of the middle road, and support creativity only slightly. In the homes there is a greater division; most parents tend to reinforce conformity (to make their child’s life easier, and enable them to produce more) while others are very supportive of creative endeavors.
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Do we have any new ideas on the nature of creativity in children?