“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” ~Fred (aka Mister) Rogers
Lisa, my dear friend who happens to be a high school English teacher, shared a link to an intriguing Psychology Today article the other day. The article discusses the steep and steady decline in the creativity of our nation’s children over the past twenty to thirty years. Studies have shown that as we’ve become a society more focused on test scores, our children have lost their ability to think creatively. The more we’ve restricted free time and free play (through both increased school work and increased extracurricular activity), the more heavily these creative losses are felt. While I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised by the article’s revelation, I was a little shocked by the statistics behind the assertion:
“According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average Elaboration score on the TTCT, for every age group from kindergarten through 12th grade, fell by more than 1 standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984. Yikes.”
When I was a child, my mother would hand us a piece of paper on which she had drawn random squiggles, lines, or shapes. Our job was to create a picture incorporating the designs she had already placed onto the paper. While my mother’s impetus for giving us this little exercise was most likely to acquire some uninterrupted free time for herself, what she was actually doing was helping us develop our creativity. As it turns out, this simple exercise my mother used to engage my sisters and I when we were children is the exact test that researchers use to measure the Creative Elaboration mentioned in the above paragraph. The goal is to have the child take what exists on the paper and expound on it in an original, meaningful, and possibly humorous way.
As I reflect on the amount of homework my boys do, on the assignments they have in school, and on the advanced level to which they are asked to work in their educational environment, it’s really no wonder that my eldest will sometimes come home in tears, lamenting the knowledge that he won’t have much free time to play after school. It’s heartbreaking, really. I did homework when I was in grade school. I know I did. But, I didn’t have much of it, maybe 30 minutes in fifth grade. Maybe. I did most of my work in class, including studying for exams, and the work I did at home was largely reading and practicing some spelling words. Joe has thirty spelling words in fifth grade, including ten vocabulary words for which he must memorize definitions. This week, on Joe’s list, appear the words hypotheses, phenomena, and memorabilia. I know adults who can’t spell those words. Joe also does 28-30 analytical, multi-step math problems a night, none of which he has time to do in class. It’s no wonder he’s stressed out.
In grade school, a million years ago when I was a child, we did fun, creative things. I remember one lesson we did for Social Studies. Both sixth grade classes were assigned an imaginary culture. We were told what the people in our make-believe country prized and how they lived their lives. We practiced acting within the boundaries of our assigned culture. Then, the teachers opened the doors between the two classes and we were prompted to interact with the other culture. One culture was entirely money-based while the other was entirely love- and affection-based. It was a hand-on lesson in culture shock. In sixth grade at my elementary school, we also studied a unit on the ancient Egyptians. With the research we had done in the library, we constructed “artifacts.” From cardboard we fashioned headpieces, Anubis likenesses, and even a sarcophagus. And…get this. We did all this work in the classroom. None of it was homework. Then, believe it or not, we dressed like the Egyptians and took the children from the other grades on a tour of our ancient Egyptian tomb, which was conducted in the school’s basement crawl space. I’m not kidding. Can you imagine the potential lawsuits from that type of activity today? Kids ducking their heads and walking around in a darkened, dusty, uneven, underground space in the school guided only by sixth graders? But, I will never forget that experience because we had to be creative to carry out our project. Our teachers, given the necessary freedom, taught us to be enthusiastic scholars. Today, my son got in my car in tears over tonight’s homework load.
I’m not a policymaker in Washington. I don’t hold a PhD in education. I’m just a mom who is home with her children. But, it seems clear to me that what our schools need more of is freedom to make learning a creative exercise and fewer standardized tests for which our children spend the entire year preparing. If we want to be the country that others imagine us to be, full of that American ingenuity we are constantly praised for, then we need to rethink our educational system. Let’s use some of the creativity we developed through the free time and play that we were allowed back when we were children to reinvent a landscape where our children are rewarded for thinking outside the box and solving problems ingeniously. Not only would it make the future of this nation brighter, but it would make our present time with our children more enjoyable and less tearful as well.