Think about the activities that fill up practically 100% of kids’ waking hours in the 21st Century: 1) school, 2) electronic media, and 3) adult-led activities.
When do they have time to create their own culture?
Well, they don’t, other than the “electronic media” time they spend creating, rather than consuming. Basically, these days, that’s limited to Facebook status updates and cryptic text messages. Thus, we’re left with a “youth culture” whose sole creative component is limited to very short virtual messages.
The fact that kids of today have no space in their lives outside of very short virtual messages to create their own culture disturbs me greatly. Their real-world culture is defined by the three adult-defined institutions mentioned in the first paragraph of this article: school, electronic media, and adult-led activities.
In their recent Newsweek article, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman do an excellent job of describing what they call The Creativity Crisis. They present evidence that kids today are much less creative than kids were decades ago, and they lay much of the blame on the anti-creative, rote learning emphasis that’s come to dominate our test-obsessed schools these days.
However, in their discussion of solutions, they emphasize “creativity training.” Their argument seems to be, “The wrong kind of schooling got us into this mess, and the right kind of schooling can get us out.” I heartily disagree.
Children are extremely creative relative to adults, so anything that they create completely on their own enables them to exercise and develop their creativity. On the other hand, because schools are, by their very nature, adult-led institutions, they can never be good at teaching creativity. They can only be useful insofar as they help children channel their creativity toward ends that are “appropriate” from the point of view of adult society.
If children aren’t afforded the space to hone their creative abilities on their own, schools are, at best, helping children regurgitate back the ideas that adult culture feeds them in new packaging. Have you seen one of these elementary school projects in which every kid in the class creates a beautiful work of art to express his or her “heartfelt” desire to end global warming or end hunger? Pullllllease!!!
I see nothing wrong in teaching kids values (although I do want some say in what those values are…), but let’s not attempt to disguise kids’ expression of these adult-driven values as creativity. If we give our kids enough space, they’ll surely have very creative ideas, and these ideas will probably have nothing to do with things that we adults care about. Their immediate experience of their everyday lives is very different than ours, and they care about very different things.
I want my kids to figure out on their own what they care deeply about, and then I want them to figure out and implement all sorts of ways in the real world to make those things better (or more interesting or more fun or more gross or whatever). Specifically, I want them and their neighborhood friends to create their own real world culture that’s rooted in their view of the world.
We may think that the cultural artifacts our kids create are rather trivial by our adult standards, but children who are creating their own secret societies or new games are developing the very creative abilities that can enable them later to invent great new software applications or medical devices.
To take these first steps toward creativity, children need to have significant time every day away from those three adult-imposed forces I mentioned earlier: school, electronic media, and adult-led activities. It’s best if they can pass this time outside our houses in their neighborhoods, so we’re not breathing down their necks.
To get kids to want to pass time in their neighborhoods, we need to make them attractive enough for them to pull them out of the adult-driven culture that kids have passively come to embrace. That’s why my wife and I have gone to all the trouble to create a “Playborhood” for our kids. Thus far, we’ve done a decent job of it, but we have a lot more work to do.