Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The gift of a cardboard box

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article this morning from Sue Shellenbarger about what makes kids creative. According to Kyung Hee Kim, an assistant professor of educational psychiatry at the College of William and Mary, American kids' scores on a commonly used creativity test fell steadily from 1990 to 2008. (An example of a question on such a test: A child sees 6 boxes arranged to look like a T. She is asked to list all the things this figure could represent. A common idea would be "the letter T." A less common idea might be "stones in an anti-gravity statue!")

Of course, some folks are quick to point to the increased use of standardized tests, and (the story goes) rote learning as crowding out time for creativity. But I think it's not just what we do in school that discourages creativity. Every Christmas as I'm shopping for toys, I'm struck by how mindless many toys have become. Selling Legos or Lincoln Logs in sets produces higher margins than just selling them as buckets of blocks, so that's what companies do. We buy toys that are associated with characters in TV shows, which then provide ready story lines for children. Will Cinderella turn into a pioneer woman who builds a hut out of Star Wars Lego sets? Let's hope so. But not hold our breath.

But it's not just the toys. It's also the amount of time children spend watching TV and playing video games. Games can encourage creativity -- sometimes. But they don't leave as much to the imagination as a book.

I'm not sure what's to be done about that. We're trying to limit our kids' exposure to video games and TV, and encourage coloring and building with blocks (and cardboard boxes) and the like. I'm curious what other readers of this blog do to nurture their children's creativity.


Sharon said...

To nurture my children's creativity? No TV--as in, we don't even own one! No video games, either. But we do have lots of books, blank paper and crayons (no coloring books), and big tubs of open-ended toys like Lego and blocks. I would say that my children are very creative and imaginative.

InTheFastLane said...

My kids watch TV (with limits) and play video games, and use the computer. But, they also have access to books and art materials and they commender any cardboard box that comes into our house.

After a trip to Costco - my 5 year old took a larger box, created a pirate ship out of it, and cut out and decorated a cardboard sword to use aboard his ship.

Sometimes, I find that creativity happens when parents are hovering and coordinating their kids' free minutes.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

No TV in our house either, but lots of Lego, Duplot, K'Nex, No'Endz, books, paper, pencils, empty cardboard boxes, other art supplies.
No particular attention to cleaning up unfinished projects either.

lgm said...

Blanket banning of video games is unwise. There are several on the market that are very good for younger children in developing mathematical and verbal skills. Some also allow the user to design their own puzzles. And if you have a kid that hates to lose games in person, he'll be happy to try out his strategies on the computer before he comes back to trounce you.
ex: Aside from the usual board and card games ported over to video, try Hexahop, Lego Junkbot, Freddy Fish, Zoombinis, Pit Droids, Sly Cooper and Ratchet & Clank before dismissing all video games.

As always, balance and give down time.

cranberry said...

Legos don't have to remain in their sets. They can be liberated into other structures.

Building blocks of all sorts and materials are useful. When they were younger, boxes, pots, pans and spoons, and empty plastic containers were wonderful.

Books, books and more books. For boys, I do like the Yu gi Oh, Pokemon and Magic: the Gathering cards. The boys discuss the cards much more than they play with them.

Music, in all its forms. Discussion, and "what would you do?" questions.

Very, very few video games. I've noticed video games do not lead to social interactions, rather the host child tends to play and the others watch.

Annie said...

I'm late in responding, but this is a subject near and dear to my heart.

Early on, my husband and I noticed how many toys stifle creativity. We refer to them as "one-trick ponies," and we don't buy them. It would be a waste of money because our boys would be bored within hours at most.

Instead, while our boys do watch some TV such as Magic School Bus and Mythbusters, they were taught early on to fast forward through commercials. (If they were caught watching commercials, the show would be shut off.) They are fairly uninterested in the latest fads in toys.

We buy lots of building toys and art supplies. We have huge boxes of LEGOS, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. This year, I bought miscellaneous assortments of LEGOS off ebay for Christmas. If we do buy a set, we encourage the boys to forget the model instructions and make up their own creations if they wish.

We also forgo kits made for children in favor of the real thing. For example, my son wanted a toy lathe kit he saw. We bought a real used lathe instead that will have more capabilities. He will also get my old camera with instructions to gut it or use it, as he sees fit.

I am sometimes a bit surprised at what I end up wrapping up for our boys, but they are delighted,and it's fun to see what they create.

deb said...

My kids like to play video games so years ago we got them software called Gamemaker. Now they amaze me with the games they've created as well as how much they've learned about animation and programming. They also love to create music and movies. But they still love to play the mindless stuff and that's what I limit, not necessarily the computer time.
I can't imagine not letting my kids watch commercials. What better way to illustrate the need to keep an alert mind than to point out the often invisible persuasive techniques used by advertisers. We may have overdone it as they are extremely cynical now.

JDunn said...

a big container of Legos have to be just about the best thing; aside from blank paper and writing utensils, cardboard toilet paper rolls, etc, of course. For Christmas gifts this year my just turned 8 year old created her own gifts for every member of our extended family. Some were simple bracelets, some handmade cards. She even writes poems and songs. My brother was the one who received his custom Lego kit complete with homemade instructions. She took some of our Legos and came up with her own design, put them in a baggie and proceeded to write out illustrated instructions. My brother was astounded and quite pleased. My main hang up is the huge mess she leaves in the basement. It takes days to clean up. I need to get over it, but it's tough.

Shannon L. Bryant said...

Creativity, I feel, comes from developing an intrinsic hunger to "know" or to "search." Simply turning off the TV isn't always enough--then you end up with a cranky kid who is still bored. ;-) I have tried, with my children, to discuss EVERYTHING--butterflies, why salt cures meat, what is the difference between ice and snow--this desire to "know" is at the heart of "creativity." Shannon :-)

Anonymous said...

Hot Wheels are a good example of degrading creativity for marketing. When I was a kid, we'd spend hours running tracks all over the house - around, under, and through things. These kits they make now are difficult to assemble and have one configuration that won't work with other pieces. A real shame…

Alecia said...

On one hand I totally understand not wanting to "stifle" a child's creativity. However, if you already have a curious and creative child, you can't be the one to determine what will interest them. My two gifted and very creative daughters have many toys I wouldn't have personally bought them because I assumed they were "one-trick ponies"(gifts from family) but I am amazed to see HOW they play with these toys. They use them in ways I'm sure many of us wouldn't have assumed. I don't think you can label any toy itself as a hindrance to creativity. Instead, work with your child on new ways of seeing how that toy can be played with.