Kids’ Culture and Creativity

The inside of the playhouse in our back yard has proven to be a great 'platform' for kids' culture.

Here's an 'Enemy List' from the walls of our playhouse. While this raises the possibility of bullying, it's also an indicator of some pretty creative cultural thinking.

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.

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20 Responses to Kids’ Culture and Creativity

  1. mark_powell says:

    These problems don’t apply to children in good quality Montessori classrooms, the first and still the most authentic child-centered learning environments. Why do most commentators continue to refuse to give attention to this living solution that is alive and well all around us among the ruins left by traditional education?

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    Mark – I do agree that, relative to other modes of schooling, Montessori provides very good support for creativity. I like how all the tools are always assembled neatly and accessibly, ready for kids to pounce on. However, it’s still school. That practice of assembling tools neatly could also be practiced in a back yard or park, and that would be a much better place for kids to express their creativity because adults aren’t always hovering around there.

    I guess you could say that my front and back yards are Montessori-esque, but without the hovering. I’ve assembled lots of features and lots of materials for manipulation, and I work with my boys to always keep them neat and accessible. For example, all that writing on our playhouse walls is possible because of our well-organized collection of markers.

  3. mfischer says:

    While I agree wholeheartedly that kids need plenty of space and unstructured time to exercise their creativity, it’s not so black and white – that kids only get to be creative “completely on their own” and not when adults are in the picture. Kids can also be perfectly creative within the “structure” of a classroom, activity or project as long as they’re given the space and encouragement to do so. I don’t see the role of schools (and other child-focused organizations/institutions) as *teaching* creativity, but as *cultivating* creativity and creative thinkers. I think places like libraries and museums do the same. The real issue, to me, is that our “adult” culture embraces the importance of creativity, of the need for developing creative thinkers – and that childhood is the foundation.

  4. mark_powell says:

    Mike,

    Dr. Montessori suggested 50 students in a classroom with one teacher, precisely because she wanted to avoid the possibility of hovering! She felt that the less that adults were available, the more students would be forced to help themselves and each other. I love what you’re doing in your yard, but it does sound like you do a LOT of hovering yourself, certainly more than if you had a classroom of children there!

    It’s also not possible for most adults to do what you’re doing because your project, like homeschooling in general, requires people to be independently wealthy to be able to dedicate their lives to their children’s education alone. Even with my own daughter, I’m glad to be able to leave her education to Montessori teachers trained in her age group.

  5. Mike Lanza says:

    Mark – Three kids are in my yard right this second, and the only adult at the house is a nanny inside cooking dinner. Yes, I’ve spent a lot to equip our yard, but otherwise, playing there for kids is a lot like decades ago when kids went outside and didn’t check in for an hour or two.

  6. Mike Lanza says:

    Mark – I do agree that, relative to other modes of schooling, Montessori provides very good support for creativity. I like how all the tools are always assembled neatly and accessibly, ready for kids to pounce on. However, it’s still school. That practice of assembling tools neatly could also be practiced in a back yard or park, and that would be a much better place for kids to express their creativity because adults aren’t always hovering around there.

    I guess you could say that my front and back yards are Montessori-esque, but without the hovering. I’ve assembled lots of features and lots of materials for manipulation, and I work with my boys to always keep them neat and accessible. For example, all that writing on our playhouse walls is possible because of our well-organized collection of markers.

  7. mark_powell says:

    How do you know there are three kids in your yard if you’re not there? Doesn’t that qualify as “hovering”?

  8. Mike Lanza says:

    Mark – No. I have no idea what they’ve done today. None. Our nanny probably has a vague idea from looking out the window occasionally.

  9. epbaird says:

    Mark, How much do you think it costs to home school? Most people who home school are not wealthy, and I can guess spend no where near what it would cost to spend them to a private school…

  10. mark_powell says:

    Yes, that’s true. But I was thinking more of the lost potential income of having one parent at home focusing on their children’s education who then is not at work contributing to household income. To homeschool a family presumably needs to be able to survive on one income, a luxury these days, right?

  11. epbaird says:

    I think staying home and having one income is a choice much more than a luxury…I know many who do it, in staying home, I save money on cars, clothing, lunches out, gift giving at work, there are a ton of things that you don’t spend money on…I’m pretty sure that a study was done that showed that when you add up everything you spend on going to work as a second income, and take it off the top, you might break even, or even make a little, but you give up so much…time at home, time with your kids, time with your husband…I know many families who give up a lot for Mom to stay home, and would notr trade it for the world 🙂

  12. mark_powell says:

    Agreed! We give up so much when we go to work. I’d love to be able to stay home, myself. It’s all in the numbers — in particular, that magical number you get when you subtract the mortgage from the largest salary. I’m glad you were able to do it.

  13. epbaird says:

    Thanks! I love every min. I get to be home with my 8 children!!!

  14. lr_khaimovich says:

    At risk of being kicked like that filthy-rich Mike, I have to confess (profess?) that I believe that school is school and should be carefully guided by an experienced teacher devoted to bringing out the full potential of his or her pupils, and play is play and should be guided by the players and their environment with nobody initially given the role of an authority knowing the best or the right way. Also I believe that play, methodically squeezed out of our children’s lives, finds its way back through various forms of “creative” schooling. Yet this destroys both play and schooling.

    Even more unfortunate is that those who are facilitating this development feel that they are helping to right an important wrong. This makes some of them feel like bearers of the torch, emboldens them and often makes them to go into extremes, so even more damage is done under the banner of enlightenment.

    Important disclaimer: I am not speaking about Montessori schools, because I don’t know much about them and am seriously considering homeschooling my children.

  15. jess says:

    i love your blog and heartily agree with all you have said (in this article and others)

    school and play can easily work alongside one another…i don’t believe i have to send my children to a montessori school even though i like a lot of the montessori theory. i think the public school up the street is fine, the kids need to learn how to deal with the constraints of school and later on, work.

    but when school is out, play alone and with friends without adults around develops a whole new set of invaluable life skills.

    my father pointed out an article to me recently where the local traffic authority was telling parents to hold children’s hands while crossing the road until the age of 10. It makes you wonder how a 16 year old can possibly have the skills to drive a car when they are so inexperienced at being a pedestrian.

  16. Elena says:

    Free play is SO important. I notice a big difference in my daughters attitude and manner when she gets enough time to just play on her own with friends during the week! It’s an amazing change!

    And you don’t have to be rich to create it for your kids either. Just hanging out with some friends at a local park will do it.

    http://www.homeschoolingwithattitude.com

  17. Moitreyee_Chowdhury_FB says:

    I believe in almost all the things mentioned in this article. But reality is that we need balance in life.
    My 4 year old would start kindergarten next year. And i struggle right now to move to a place, where the school is more thoughtful in its process than just jamming information in little minds.

    I could if I want, home school. But, I also feel a strong urge to follow on my dreams, have that little time in the morning to do something for my self, surrounded by adult company, as I can not afford a nanny. So, my girl would have to go to school and learn to figure it out in that surrounding only. At home, she has a lot of freedom and space to express and explore on her own.

    Question is, is there such a school which has a little bit of balance? I found several private school, but not a a public one. Any ideas?

  18. Mike Lanza says:

    Peraonally, I’m a big believer in neighborhood public schools rather than private schools. Here’s my article about that.

    As for which public school, I love ours, which has high test scores while limiting homework (our principal has a low or no homework policy for his teachers). We live in Menlo Park, CA.

  19. Elena says:

    Oh, I don’t have a nanny or anything like that. I admit it is a big challenge finding balance for your self and child when homeschooling, but it works really well for us right now.

    A lot of homeschoolers also become members of co-ops, where parents come together and teach a class or volunteeer, and the kids go to school for a day.

    Other co-ops hire an educator and decide on cirriculum as a group and just drop off their kids.

    Most of these things you have to find by word of mouth as far as I know. I’ve not been able to do a search and find one, though some do have web sites up. So those might be an option for you too.

    Something sort of inbetween homeschooling and private schooling. Some people love their public schools and that’s cool too.

    Just make sure you are pro active and know what kind of environment your particular school actually provides, and how your child is doing there. Too many people get passive and assume schools are automatically providing what their children need without making sure.

    In the end it all comes down to doing what works best for your unique family. Everyone’s needs are different, and I firmly believe in everyone being free to find their own unique solutions! 🙂

    (I like your take on homework Mike!)

    I find that meeting my needs isn’t a huge struggle if we schedule time for every person’s main needs and then be flexible around that. And explaining why to my daughter makes a big difference.

    She is totally happy entertaining herself for 2-4 hours while I work, or dance, or do what I need if I explain why and she gets to see how much better a mood I am when I have my needs met too. During that time, she gets a lot of free play. 🙂

    But she is a little older (8yrs) and not every child is so equitable, so it comes down to what works for you.

    If you want fun ideas, feel free to visit my blog. http://www.homeschoolingwithattitude.com

    Best wishes to you!

  20. Moitreyee_Chowdhury_FB says:

    Mike, what is the name of your school? Menlo park has a lot of varied schools? How is the Willows area?