Are We Wringing the Creativity Out of Kids?

| May 4, 2012 | 47 Comments
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Do you think you’re creative?”

Ask this question of a group of second-graders, and about 95 percent of them will answer “Yes.” Three years later, when the kids are in fifth grade, that proportion will drop to 50 percent—and by the time they’re seniors in high school, it’s down to 5 percent.

Author Jonah Lehrer recently discussed the implications of these sobering statistics for education in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. In a talk and question-and-answer session he participated in at the Commonwealth Club in Palo Alto, California, last month, Lehrer talked about why children lose their playful sense of creativity as they get older, and how we can help them hang on to it.

Lehrer began by quoting Picasso: “Every child is born an artist. The problems begin once we start to grow up.” Actually, Lehrer noted, the problems begin in a very specific time frame: the years covering third, fourth, and fifth grade. It’s during this period, he says, that many kids “conclude that they are not creative, and this is in large part because they start to realize that that their drawing is not quite as pretty as they would like, that they can put the brush in the wrong place, that their short stories don’t live up to their expectations—so they become self-conscious and self-aware, and then they shut themselves down.” Parents and teachers must intervene during this crucial window to ensure that children’s creativity doesn’t wither.

“Right now we are grooming our kids to think in a very particular way, which assumes that the right way to be thinking is to be attentive, to stare straight ahead.”

One such intervention: “We have to expand our notion of what productivity means,” said Lehrer. “Right now we are grooming our kids to think in a very particular way, which assumes that the right way to be thinking is to be attentive, to stare straight ahead—which is why we diagnose 20 percent of kids in many classrooms as having attention deficit disorders, when the research is actually more complicated.”

People with such conditions are actually more likely to become “eminent creative achievers” once they’re out in the real world, Lehrer noted. He cited research by Jordan Grafman of the University of Toronto, showing that distractibility can be an asset as long as it’s combined with a moderately high IQ. “When you’re distractible, you’re always grabbing at seemingly irrelevant ideas and combining them with other ideas. Most of those ideas won’t pan out, which is why being smart helps, because that means you can get rid of those ideas quickly,” he said. “But every once in a while, that new mash-up is going to be useful, is going to lead you somewhere interesting.”

Parents’ and teachers’ task, he said, is to help kids learn how to “productively daydream.”

Lehrer’s second proposal: Teach children how to have “grit,” the perseverance and determination that’s required to create something new. He referenced the research on grit conducted by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, who professes the maxim “Choose easy, work hard.”

Lehrer elaborated: “What she means by that is that’s important to give kids a menu of possibilities pretty early on, a menu of things they might fall in love with—maybe it’s painting, maybe it’s drawing, maybe it’s writing, maybe it’s computer science—just a bunch of passions that they could discover. [You want them to] find these things that don’t feel like work, activities that just feel like fun. And then you have to remind them—‘OK, so you’ve found something you love, the goal you want to strive for. Now you have to work hard. Now you have to put in your thousands of hours of practice. Now you have to be willing to persevere through failure and frustrations.’”

With these key interventions, Lehrer suggested, children’s vital spirit of creativity can be kept alive.



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  • Margaret

    Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach up toward Heaven to change the world below.

    – Harriet Tubman

  • Julia

    Yes. Yes. And yes! The key for me is “to give kids a menu of possibilities early on, a menu of things they might fall in love with”. I might add: things that require active participation instead of passive consumption.

  • Nicholas Larsen

    The last thing we want to do is get rid of creativity in the USA.  Innovation is the only thing keeping the USA ahead of China and India

  • Anonymous

    Lehrer and Duckworth have one take on creativity, but others including Jung-Beeman and Kounios (Drexel), E. Miller and J. Cohen (Princeton), E. Goldberg, Hubel, Rubin and others have noted that creativity may reside in unconscious or semi-conscious functioning of the brain, perhaps located in the non-dominant (R?) Hemisphere and accessible when the active thought process is disengaged, i.e not actively concentrating.   Concentration would not be harmful here, but irrelevant!   Creativity might be present, the students might simply not be attending to it.   Those more creative might well have more ‘access’ to this, but all may have at least some creativity, whether accessible or not.   This might not so much be ‘taught out’, as rather hidden from view or buried.   For some explanation see The Age of Instinct (E. Kandel) Ch29-32.

  • Mreiter72

    You don’t even need to tell them about the thousands of hours of work and practice, you just need to leave them alone and allow them to experience their passions in their own way and let those passions be their own. Otherwwise you risk overlaying your own experience onto theirs, which can return you to the original problem. Creativity requires space.

  • Trenalg

    I like the emphasis on FIRST finding what the child loves to do, by providing them lots of opportunities to try a variety of things.  and THEN, challenge them to work, hard, at what they already have discovered they love to do.  I see parents defeating their kids before they even get started, by forcing them into activities that the PARENTS love, but which the kids don’t love, and then insisting they stay with the dreaded activity,  rationalizing that the kids need to learn to stick with things in a world where life is hard, there are challenges in the work world, etc.  I watch little kids being screamed at during practices and games, in sports which the child never chose and doesn’t enjoy, and isn’t good at, and it makes me sad for these little tykes.  What’s up with today’s parents, forcing their little tiny kinds into a life of super competitiveness and regimentation?  Kids need time every day to just play, with other kids, without a bunch of obcessed grownups (parents) hovering around them yelling at them, snapping pictures of them, insisting they wear hot, cumbersome uniforms, and work for little trophies, and bribing them with sugary treats and the promise of a trip after the practice to Chucky Cheese (Jr. Las Vegas) or some other noisy fast “food” place.

  • Kaiabelkis

    Parents if you value independent thinking, true creativity, confidence, and wonderment please consider a Waldorf education.

  • kellbell

    If you want kids to be creative, turn off the tv and make them play outside. They need some solitude in a natural environment (yes, kids need to be alone outdoors sometimes) to develop a sense of self and they need to experience failure (without mom and dad rushing in to save them) in order to grow.  The more chances a child has to be self reliant the more self esteem they have.  The correlation between healthy self esteem and creativity cannot be underestimated. The answer is not providing more options (you can paint, play violin, dance, etc…) but providing this basic framework for healthy development. The creativity will be natural, spontaneous, and applicable to many different situations in life.

  • 1A2B3C

    The problem is the structure in education with standardized testings, no one can fail and everyone must go to college, and of course parenting and society. Parenting is teaching and is the most influential in children’s lives. Society is also teaching and is almost if not more influential. One more thing, when will the next, latest and greatest research (using a small sampling)/book by another so-call expert to tell children how they should learn or what is wrong in education?

    • tammy

      As a public school teacher (2nd grade), I must agree. The current trend not only ignores the creative impulses of students, it also does the same to teachers. We no longer are trusted to use our knowledge and experience to guide us. Mandates from the state, the school board, the superintendent, the principal, (etc.) determine how and what we are allowed to teach.

  • Imscott

    Interesting that creativity starts to decline at the grade levels students begin taking high stakes standardized tests…

  • Paul Barnwell

    As a teacher, I encounter very few high school students who I consider creative.  There is probably nothing worse than the deluge and pressure of standardized testing–and what it does to the curriculum–as far as impacting creativity and pedagogy that supports innovative inquiry and questions, rather than answers.
    When I taught middle schoo language arts, I attempted to inject some activities into class to help with this issue:
    On another note, I think you need to find a balance between allowing a kid to pursue their passion and exposing them to other subjects and ideas.

  • Waveyoga

    I oppose the tenet that we teach kids to look straight ahead thus breaking their potential for creativity

  • childsmind:innovation

    Yes we all need to be more aware of the importance of nurturing our kids creativity, building their creative confidence and motivation rather than letting it slide. I believe we also just need to make space in our busy lives for some free time to give kids space to explore, time to be kids and play- to discover their interests and develop their own passions rather than keeping them busy with scheduled activities. As parents we just need to step back a little too…

  • Nigel Collin – Thinkativity

    I’m sure sure why this surprises us. A bit of a no brainier really. In the 60’s George Land conducted an experiment where he gave a creativity test to a bunch of 5 year olds and 92% scored highly creative. He then gave the same test to the same kids 5 years later and only 32% scored highly creative. He then gave the same test to the same kids 5 years later and now only 12% scored highly creative. He concluded that we don’t loose our creativity but rather learn to be uncreative.

    For me the focus should not be on the fact that school kill creativity as Sir Ken Robinson so elegantly put it, but rather how do we not kill it?

    I love the work of Carol Dweck who talks about fixed mindset versus growth mindset. Fixed being focusing on outcomes (right and wrong) and on comparing – Growth focuses on the process, the effort, the doing). I believe we can short circuit this whole school killing creativity thing if each of us can teach our own children to have a growth mindset and each of us inspire and nurture and stimulate the creativity of our own kids and those around us. We need to stop focusing on what education is doing wrong, cut the rhetoric and get on with a viable solution

    Great article – stimulating.

  • joshua

    There would be no Disney if we did to children years ago what we are doing to them in today’s schools-no creativity, just teach for the test

  • Jenn Choi

    This was great.  “We have to expand our notion of what productivity means,” 


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  • PlaSmart

    Too often we train our children to value tangible things, because it’s easy to reward an A+ or when they qualify for the track team. Occasionally, we should find the value in our kids personalities and quirks and the results of those things. We should teach them to value their contributions, their opinions and their efforts, then they may realize that their contribution to the world can be greater than just getting to the next grade – whether as a child or when they become adults.
    @PlaSmart | @Perplexus1 | @PlasmaRide
    Facebook: /PlaSmart /PlaSmartPerplexus /PlasmaRide

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  • LML

    The link to Lehrer’s book indicates that his book was pulled from the shelves because he fabricated some of its content.

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  • Teacher

    This is absolutely correct – it’s also mentioned on Ken Robison’s Changing Paradigm RSA animate. This is also not new. What is surprising is that Jonah Lehrer, the great plagiarist and charlatan has been allowed to resurface as an expert, even using his book, which was pulled from shelves because it contained knowingly incorrect information. What is troubling about this is the following: he’s probably seen the money to be made in education speaking for the likes of Ken Robinson and Dan Pink, and is trying to get in on the gravy train. What he’s saying is not new, was recently said by the aforementioned non-plagiarizing experts, so why invite him in to the conversation? He’s a good example of what drives people out of creativity and into greed: fast deadlines, big data, a lot of information that someone can repackage and sell.

  • erum

    What I have read here clearly shows that traditional schooling need to be change. As a Montessorian I believe that we apply all these techniques in our classes and that’s why Montessori kids always shows natural curiosity towards learning.

  • umbrarchist

    A lot of schooling is learning to tolerate boredom, or being motivated by pleasing the teacher. If you want to know things that aren’t being taught at the time then you are in trouble. That is why we need a National Recommended Reading List. Make it easy for kids to find excellent books on whatever they want.

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  • Darcy Hill

    We need to be very deliberate about encouraging creativity, play, and imagination development. The innovations of the future, the joy of learning will depend on it. Please see “Looking At Creativity 1-9…” at

  • Jgurl

    I’ve seen the other end of the spectrum where parents expose their children to SO MANY things that the child doesn’t get the opportunity to excel in any ONE of them. They in fact interpret these “exposures” as “opportunities” and become egomaniacs who trying to satisfy the need to get more and more and MORE to be happy, rather than become explorers who are trying to find their passion to create happiness. It’s an outward in situation rather than an inward out process.

  • Jgurl

    I’ve seen the other end of the spectrum where parents expose their children to SO MANY things that the child doesn’t get the opportunity to excel in any ONE of them. They in fact interpret these “exposures” as “opportunities” and become egomaniacs who trying to satisfy the need to get more and more and MORE to be happy, rather than become explorers who are trying to find their passion to create happiness. It’s an outward in situation rather than an inward out process.

  • slburns

    As a teacher I completely agree and as a parent I feel like this is imperative for teachers to start now. Our children should have choice and exposure to many ways in which they can express their creativity. From art to performance being the most obvious but coding and “making” is also an avenue for children to create. This can all be linked to standards. Educators also need to awaken their creative side and keep learning and finding ways to keep kids engaged in the classroom!

  • NLP training

    Yes, letting the kids explore on what they like, would definitely bring out the best in them. Coz when you are interested in something, rarely u’ll be bat at it.

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  • Barry

    I suppose beginning at the beginning is usually a good idea. I challenge educators to redirect their attention to disciplines. Music, fine art, math, science, literature are all disciplines. That is what makes them like magic with kids. However, you will need to find ways which enable kids to own each discipline.

    Music is not learning clarinet in 3rd grade, nor is it clapping hands to BINGO in 1st grade. Music is composition (the combining of sounds and silences to achieve a musical goal). Kids need to learn music via conceptual growth, not skill growth. If music is taught from the beginning by providing opportunities for kids to explore sounds, to achieve simple composition assignments, to compose, conduct, notate, rehearse and perform their compositions (all in simple ways at the beginning). Then by 3rd grade I can guarantee you someone or many children will NEED the sound of a clarinet, flute, trumpet (as well as numerous inventive sounds they make up). So THEN they need skills and you send them to the nice people down the hall who teach instrument skills.

    This proceedure/method/curriculum is directly adaptable to all the disciplines. As for discipline (behavior) problems, they almost do not exist.

    AND music became a creative discipline owned by the kids, theirs, highly valued and integrated with all the other disciplines. So then the concepts they were learning in reading or science or math could be used to structure assignments/compositions. The confidence children gain with this approach, which really does make them in charge of their learning lives, is priceless!

    • Maria Droujkova

      Barry, do you work with kids and music in this way? I am looking for like-minded people in all walks of life, though I work in mathematics (Natural Math).

      • Barry

        I used to teach music using Manhattanville Music Curriculum… teaching music as a creative art. Children were composers in Kindergarten and this continued throughout. I was having conversations with K comparing their compositions with early Mozart. Really a gas. Their compositions often were coordinated with the subject matter in other disciplines which actually helped them understand concepts and skills being taught in say science or math. You can respond to if interested.

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  • Darcy Hill

    Our kids need opportunities to creatively play as well. I have studied the value of the arts in education over the past 30 years as an educator and arts advocate. Immeasurable value. Please see: Don’t Cut The Arts, The Perfection of Store Bought Creativity, Missing the Boat With Meaningful Relevant Learning, Coloring Outside The Lines, Numbers Numbers Numbers, Looking At The Creative Spirit, Do You Bind Or Liberate The Creative Spirit, Popular is Deleterious To Creativity; at

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  • Penny Williams

    Education in the US has nearly eliminated creativity in the learning process altogether. It really is tragic, especially for different learners, like students with ADHD, learning disabilities, etc. Creativity adds interest to lessons, as well as a chance for a challenged learner to show strengths and build self-esteem. I am fortunate that my son began attending a charter school this year based on the expeditionary learning model — there’s a lot more problem-solving and creativity built into lessons.

    Penny Williams
    Author of “Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD” and “What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD”

  • marinabel

    This article reminds me of the scene in “Boyhood” where Mason’s pedantic, overbearing photography teacher lectures him on discipline while he’s in the darkroom developing photos. The teacher ends by assuring Mason that years later he will remember this advice. Richard Linklater obviously remembers this kind of teacher very well.

    Maybe instead of seeking advice on creativity from Jonah Lehrer, a noted plagiarist, we should seek advice from actual artists. I think they would tell us to beware of trying to direct our children’s daydreams.