You always suspected your child was a genius, and you might be onto something. That’s the view, anyway, of Sir Ken Robinson, education reform advocate and the man behind one of the most-viewed TED Talks ever. To demonstrate kids’ innate brilliance, Robinson has cited an old but intriguing study: when asked how many uses they can dream up for a paper clip (a classic test of what’s called divergent thinking), 98 percent of kindergartners thought of enough ideas to qualify as creative geniuses by the study’s standards. That percentage declined as kids got older, bottoming out at 2 percent for adults.
As a mom of two small children, I see such creative thinking all the time in my house, where toys frequently pull double or triple duty. Last night my two-year-old held up a foam bowling pin and shouted, “Bubbas!” I was confused until she raised it to her lips and blew air as if through a bubble wand. Genius.
Robinson thinks schools stamp out kids’ creativity, and there’s some research to back him up. The simple act of teaching, at least in terms of a one-way transfer of information, can dull a child’s drive for discovery. One study showed that preschoolers presented with a toy mastered it more adeptly when they heard “I wonder how this toy works” than when an adult said “I’ll show you how this toy works.” The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has faulted schools for cutting recess in favor of class time and for introducing math and reading instruction at increasingly young ages.
As best we can tell, the future belongs to creative types—to the tinkerers, innovators, and outside-the-box thinkers. We know that’s true in Silicon Valley; Google co-founder Larry Page, for example, often took things apart as a child to see how they worked. But all fields will require more nimble minds as machines take over rote tasks. In its 2018 Future of Jobs report, the World Economic Forum listed “creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion, and negotiation” as well as “attention to detail, resilience, flexibility, and complex problem-solving” as skills workers will need in 2022.
The good news is that kids are natural tinkerers, innovators, and outside-the-box thinkers. The biggest thing parents can do, says the AAP, is give them freedom to play. “It has been demonstrated that children playing with toys act like scientists and learn by looking and listening to those around them,” the organization wrote in a 2018 clinical report. What’s more, all types of play, from dress-up to rough-housing, have big benefits for the brain. The report encouraged parents to play with their kids but emphasized that kids should take the lead, since “explicit instruction limits a child’s creativity.” In other words, when your child says a bowling pin is a bubble wand, start popping those imaginary bubbles, mama.
Parents can also nurture inquiring minds by flipping kids’ questions back to them. In essence, do the opposite of a Google search (another curiosity-quashing force in our lives, with all due respect to Page). If a child asks how a toy works, you might say, “I’m not sure, but I wonder what that button does.” When they require an answer, tack on a question. Yesterday, my four-year-old asked what a satellite was, so I mumbled something about a rocket that flies around the earth and takes pictures. I should have added, “Would you like to go to space someday?” (He also asked what a stepmother was, right after we read a particularly disturbing bedtime story, Hansel and Gretel. No one said this gig was easy.)
As we struggle to find the right words and make the best decisions for our kids, we can take heart in knowing they already possess the brilliance to succeed in this rapidly changing world. All a parent can do is guard that flame—and maybe leave an old computer around to be taken apart (just a thought). I’m confident that well before my kids reach employment age, they will be the ones showing me how things work. I hope they can still imagine all the possibilities.