Creativity in children and young adults is being undermined but neither by intent nor design. It is the unforeseen consequence of our current educational system and the ‘new normal’ of play.

I hear more and more from my educator friends and parents that I work with that their children “are just not that creative”. When I first heard this it was a whisper of a few, now it is a loud and clear message by many. It’s time to pay attention.

Working with a group of students recently, I was asked to dive deep and have the students work on the connection between creativity and critical thinking skills. The exercise was simple; make up a character and develop their backstory. As a guide, I gave the students 4 questions to think about when creating the backstory. They had permission to break the rules and creatively develop their imaginary characters.

Picture this; on a flip chart were four questions:
1. What is the name of your character?
2. What do they look like?
3. What are they good at?
4. What is their biggest challenge?

Midway through the exercise, a student waved me down. He was distraught because he skipped number 3.

Critically thinking; the logical answer for the student is to simply answer number 3 last, essentially making it number 4. He went on to do so but he was really disturbed that he did not complete the questions in order.

Why is that?

His world inside and outside the classroom is extremely structured. Free play is limited; music and arts are put on the back burner due to budget cuts and standardized testing. Play at home comes in the form of video games and computer time.

The educators and parents I work with are amazing. They work hard, care about the children and want the best for them. But they too, like the children, are trying to navigate a new environment.

Creativity is the ability to design, develop, use our imaginations and is the catalyst for developing critical thinking skills. The ability to connect (not simply know the answer to a question via memorization), the ability to think in a way that pulls in our life experiences and knowledge is fundamental to becoming productive and contributing members of society.

The great news is there are ways we can turn this around while not ignoring the realities inside and outside of the classroom.

Tips for connecting creativity and critical thinking:
1. Model the behavior. How often do our children see us using our imaginations or do they see us glued to our smart devices? Using our creativity and applying critical thinking is simply a ‘muscle’ to be exercised.

• Do you like to cook? Make up a recipe with your children and let them know that you are ‘making it up’. After you eat your creation, talk about what worked, what would you do differently next time?
• Make up a story in mid-conversation at the dinner table. “Hey Jonny, what would you do if when you went fishing with your dad, a giant frog jumped in the boat and began singing Jingle Bells.” Get silly.

2. Put away the video games and go outside. I know, this seems like an obvious solution but like many things obvious, it’s not always easy to apply.

• Give the children a pair of binoculars and let them go exploring without any guidance. When they are done, ask them what they discovered.
• Go visit small businesses and have the children ask the owners “what do you do?” Have a family conversation about how that small business helps others, who are there customers, what do they need to become a business owner? I love this one because it really gets kids thinking creatively and critically. You might be surprised at their answers.

3. Have a debate. This is great both inside and outside the classroom.

• Instead of simply answering a question they have; ask open-ended questions, get into a real dialogue. Encourage children to explore their thoughts. “Why do you think that?” “Is there another perspective?”
• Play ‘Pick a Topic’: Put topics into a bowl and set aside time to have the children ‘pick a topic’. These can be anything from “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” to “Should girls be allowed to play on the boy’s football team?” You get the idea.

While the topic of the connection between creativity and critical thinking skills is just beginning to gain momentum, we don’t need to wait for all the studies to be done or to see the topic on the Today Show to take action. The future of our children is in our capable hands.