Come on, I’m sure as a child you made a mud pie.  Smoothed it all out, perhaps decorated it with a leaf or a twig.  Did you present it to your mom?  I did.  But do your children have time (or permission) to make a mud pie? Let’s take a look at why mud pies are important to innovation.

First, I want to make sure that you don’t think creativity is only for artistic types.  Do you understand that creativity is needed for every job?  It’s not just about being able to paint a picture or write a story.  It’s about being able to think of different ideas and then connecting two ideas that have never been connected before.  That’s where creativity meets innovation.  Creativity is the foundation of innovation, it’s all the different ideas you can come up with.  Innovation is the ability to take two very different ideas and tie them together.  Innovation built cars, discovered vaccines, and sent us to the moon.

Can You Test for Creativity?

Kyung Hee Kim, Ph.D., the author of The Creativity Challenge:  How We Can Recapture American Innovation, found that creativity in the US has been going down since the 1990s.  How does she know this?  The Torrance Test of Creative Thinking has been used since the late 1950s to test creativity in children.  She looked at results from the 1950s into the 2000s.  The Torrance test even followed some of the early test-takers to keep track of their lives and careers.  Those who scored the highest didn’t all become artists.  Instead, they studied engineering, mathematics, and medicine.  People who look at their world creatively become innovators and problem solvers.

One of my favorite examples of creativity driving innovation is during the Apollo 13 crisis when the C02 levels in the Lunar Module were getting dangerously high.  There were canisters that could remove the C02, but they were designed for the Command module.  They literally had to fit a square peg into a round hole with only the things that were available in the Lunar Module.  This scene plays out with life-or-death urgency, which is shown in the movie, as NASA engineers devise a workaround that the astronauts could make and put into place.

These engineers had to look at things that never went together before and find a way to put them together.  It would have been easy if all the tools in the world were available to them.  It would have been easy if they had had time to sit down and draw out plans and try out a few different ideas.  But they didn’t have time, and the only tools they could use were the same exact things that the Astronauts had in the Lunar Module.  And they did it. Creative innovation at its finest.

Possible Reasons Test Results Are Going Down

Up until the 1990s, creativity had been on the rise, but since the 1990s, it’s been steadily going down.  There are a lot of contributing factors for this, including increased school testing, the rise of helicopter parents, and the overscheduled child and overuse of video games.

Increased school testing.  Increased school testing, made worse by the No Child Left Behind Act in the early 2000s, put more emphasis on rote learning and test scores.  Our schools were seen as falling behind the schools in China and Europe, and this was the plan to combat it.  Funding and teachers’ jobs became dependent on how high the test scores were.  This, in turn, had an impact not only on Art and Music classes but on Gym and recess time as well.  Yes, we’re starting to score higher on tests of memorization, reading, and math.  But at the loss of creativity and the loss of healthy children.

Funny thing.  As we reduced our arts and increased our testing, other countries started realizing that they needed to do the exact opposite.  They are increasing their arts programs and exercise and recess time.  We are falling behind in innovation while other countries are starting to move ahead.  You cannot innovate if creativity has not been nurtured.

Helicopter Parents and Overscheduled Children.  Helicopter parents are called that because they hover over their children, removing obstacles and clearing the path for them…sometimes all the way through college and into the job market.  Worse is when they also over-schedule their kids into sports and activities so the child never has time to play.  They go from school to soccer to dance to tutoring to scheduled play dates or parent-approved clubs and organizations.  Once at home, they usually have 1 to 2 or more hours’ worth of homework before bedtime.

If you’re thinking this is good parenting, then I ask…when does the child have time to play?  When does the child learn how to socialize with their peers?  When does the child learn how to problem solve on their own?

Video Games. For every parent that helicopters, there is a parent that does the exact opposite. Instead of over-parenting, they are grossly under-parenting. They don’t pay attention to their child, and, instead, use video games as a babysitter to keep them quiet.  Let me be clear.  Video games are not the problem. They are very useful in teaching problem-solving. But using them to get your child to stay quiet and not bother you is a problem as it reduces socialization and playtime.

What Does All Of This Have To Do With Mud Pies?

A mud pie is a combination of play and creativity.  It’s fun to play in the mud.  But it takes imagination to pretend that that glob of mud is a pie.  And it takes even more imagination to decorate it with leaves and sticks, and flowers.  But if you tell your child not to play in the mud, they don’t get this fun.  Or worse, if you direct them to make a mud pie and tell them what decorations to put on it, the child isn’t flexing their creativity…you are.

Play.  It’s all about playing and having fun, and getting dirty.  Making up games, making up imaginary friends, and making up imaginary food.  All of it develops a child’s creativity.  Here’s the thing, though, as the parent, you need to step back and stop trying to control how your child plays.  It’s not for you to make up the new game.  It’s for your child to do it, even if the rules don’t make any sense.  It’s ok to play with your child, but let the child take control and direct the play.   Playing with your children shouldn’t always be about teaching a lesson.  Play should be fun, and in having fun deeper lessons are being learned.

If you stop trying to control the outcome of their play, your child learns to come up with ideas on their own.  They even learn how to take two different ideas and put them together to try out something new.  And if that doesn’t work out, they try another new way.  But if you’re forever butting in and suggesting that your way makes more sense, your child doesn’t learn to trust their own imagination and instincts, and they become afraid to make mistakes.

To swear off making mistakes is very easy. All you have to do is swear off having ideas.

Leo Burnett.

If you want to learn more about our Creativity Crisis, here are some places to start.

2017 Creativity Crisis Update. This is an update from Kyung Hee Kim, mentioned above, who studied the results of the Torrance test.

Why We Need to Let Kids be Creative. This article discusses testing in schools and how free playtime can help children develop their creativity.

And here is a Ted Talk from Ken Robinson about whether schools kill creativity.  He’s the author of Out of Our Minds:  The Power of Being Creative.