Creative possibilities are everywhere. If you doubt that, watch your kids. They stir dirt, leaves and pool water into pretend pies. They turn wine boxes into parking garages for toy cars. During play, creativity is automatic.
Unfortunately, studies show Americans are becoming less creative. Researcher Kyung Hee Kim, assistant professor of educational psychology at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, finds creativity test scores are declining dramatically. The most extreme decrease she found – a drop of 37 percent between 1984 and 2008 – was in elaboration, which includes the ability to elaborate on ideas and the motivation to be creative.
If creativity is built in, why are we losing it?
The creativity crisis begins at home, Kim says. Parents with little tolerance for mess, noise and ambiguity may demand kids speak, think and act “correctly” – leaving little room for individuality. And leisure activities like TV and video games can make kids passive consumers, rather than stimulating their innovative energies.
Educational strategies that confuse mimicry with learning also take a toll. Kids learn to ask, “What do I have to do to get an A?” and to follow directions without deviation. When kids are motivated to get the right answer, they become afraid to take creative and original leaps, says Rebecca Weingarten, a former classroom teacher and produced playwright who works as an education coach in New York. Children grow leery of situations where they feel off-balance or uncertain.
Our increasingly complicated world is also to blame. To manage the overwhelming cognitive load, our brains process information using mental models of past experiences – and we see things the same way we’ve seen them before. We repeat previous behavior because it worked and because acting on autopilot is faster than starting from scratch. We have come to value efficiency more than innovation.
Roadblocks come from within, too, says creativity expert Stephen Eiffert, author of Cross-Train Your Brain: A Mental Fitness Program for Maximizing Creativity and Achieving Success. If you believe you just aren’t a creative person or you fear looking foolish, wasting time or making mistakes, you’ll continue doing things the way you’ve always done them.
“Creative people do not confuse their personal value with the learning process,” Eiffert says. They play with elements or concepts and accept that mistakes are part of the deal. They know failure isn’t fatal.
You can demonstrate this yourself. When your child asks you to draw a monkey, don’t say, “Mommy isn’t good at drawing.” Take your best shot. If your monkey looks more like a bear or a mouse, don’t give up – add a banana! Approach the situation with a spirit of learning, not a focus on failure. Remember: In most situations, there isn’t only one right answer.
When you approach life with a creative spirit, you’ll find lots of opportunities to stretch your practical imagination. You can learn new things every day. Cook without a recipe. Take a different route to work. Solve household problems with ingenuity. Let your creative self come out and play. You’ve still got a lot to learn, right?
This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2016