“To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play.”
- Albert Einstein
At work a couple of weeks ago, a coworker told me that her daughter wanted to play Barbies with her. Her response, “I don’t know how to play with Barbies anymore. What do you do with them? Say hi to each other?” She told me she was too old and forgot how to play with them, so she couldn’t play with her daughter. Her comment really struck me for personal reasons. I have a little sister who just turned eight years old. Me and my stepbrother are both in our twenties, so as far as siblings go, she has no one to play with. Luckily, she does have cousins her age.
When my sister was only a few years younger, I used to invent fantasy games for us to play. We’d be mermaids, or princesses in a magical land, or running away from a scary monster out to get us. I had played similar games when I was a kid. But over the past few years, I’ve found that I can’t pretend like I used to. Now, whenever she wants to play with me, I’ll suggest board games, hide-and-seek, or an archery contest. Games that don’t involve a whole lot of imagination or pretending. All of my kid cousins consider me one of their own, and they insist on attacking me to play with them whenever I see them, because c’mon, I’m a lot of fun. But now, it’s a lot harder for me to enter their world, and I’m just wondering what happened? I coach middle schoolers, and I also discovered that it’s harder for me to connect with them, when it came so easy only two years ago. What happens to adults that we lose the ability to pretend and play like kids do?
According to the article, “Age and Creativity,” the author says that kids who are about five years old use 80% of their creative potential. Dr. Stephanie Carlson, an expert on childhood brain development, adds that “kids spend as much as 2/3 of their time in non-reality—in imaginative play.” Sadly, as kids get older, their creativity starts to decline, and quickly it seems. A study shows that in Kindergarten, 84% of children rank high in creativity, but by second grade, that drops to 10% of students. In another study, a test showed that 98% of children ages three to five could think in divergent ways, meaning thinking in ways that are outside of the norm. That drops to 32% for kids ages eight to ten.
This decline in creativity and divergent ways of thinking gets even lower once children enter middle school and their preteen to teen years. One study says that by age twelve, we are only using about 2% of our creative potential, and that amount of potential usually stays with us for the rest of our lives. Clearly five years old are winning at something. Other studies go on to say that that only 10% of thirteen to fifteen year olds could think in divergent ways, and for twenty-five year olds, it drops down to 2%. Basically, something is happening to us as we get older, which is not news to anyone. We all know we lose our childhood ability to play, create, and pretend, but now you know just how much.
The exact reasons for why this happens is varied. In Sam McNerney’s article, “Killing Creativity: Why Kids Draw Pictures of Monsters & Adults Don't,” he explains that one of the reasons is because of our maturing brain. He says, “regions of the frontal cortex – a part of the brain responsible for rule-based behavior – are not fully developed until our teenage years.” He doesn’t explain this further, but I’ll speculate that it has a lot to do with conformity, rational thinking, and the loss of free-thinking.
The second reason, he says, is that our educational system greatly discourages creativity. This was the consensus of most people who had thoughts on the subject. In grade school, kids learn memorization over problem-solving, that there are right and wrong answers, and that there are consequences for wrong answers, such as bad grades. One study showed that “kids’ natural tendency to daydream and wonder declines sharply around 4th grade.” Dr. Carlson believes it’s because around that age, we have to start thinking more logically and rationally for school, so we “spend more of our time and brain power in reality—and less in imagination.”
|found on Google - we could never build something so epic|
Something that also struck me about what happens as we get older is that we start to fear being wrong. McNerny explains that kids “are willing to explore, investigate and put their ideas to the test because they are willing to fail.” I’ve noticed this because of my little sister. One of our favorite things to do together is build a fort out of blankets and use whatever we have available to us. She’s very independent and doesn’t like to listen to me whenever I’m trying to show her how to do something. She wants to figure it out herself. So, as she’s trying to find a way to tie the blanket to some object around the room, it’ll fall, then she’ll try again, and it will fall again. Then she’ll try again, it will stay for a little while, we’ll test the stability of it, and then it will usually inevitably fall again. But that doesn’t discourage her. It doesn’t matter that I know and even tell her that she’s doing it all wrong – that it won’t work if she ties the blanket to her rubber arrow that she stuck in a box full of toys, or trying to put her nearly empty plastic piggy bank on top of the blanket to keep it from sliding down. She’ll keep trying until she figures it out, or finally caves and lets me help her. McNerny says, “Unlike adults, they don’t care how other people perceive or evaluate their ideas, and they’re unconcerned with the impossible or what doesn’t work.”
All she cares about is that at the end, we will have a fort, and to her, it will be awesome. It will be a house, or maybe even two houses. Those houses could be mansions or small cottages. Though the fort barely has enough room for me to move around, to her, it’s big enough for two rooms, a living room, a kitchen, or maybe just a simple classroom. The uses for the small fort are endless and limitless. Most of the time, I just want to take a nap in it, which she sometimes allows for about ten seconds, if I’m lucky. To me as an adult, all I care about is that the fort gets built. I see it as my job to make sure it doesn’t collapse on us, and obviously, tying it to unstable objects means less stability. Though, I’m pretty certain there are right and wrong ways to build a fort, the point in building it with my sister is our willingness to be creative – to test out what works, what looks cool, what would make it bigger, etc.
The ability to create without the fear of being wrong or what others may think fades as we get older. Susan Robertson writes about why we should have a child-like imagination, and explains, “Since creativity inherently requires a willingness to possibly be wrong, we begin to avoid it.” This is why my co-worker didn't play Barbies with her daughter, because she didn't know how. She feared that there was a wrong way to play with the dolls, so she'd rather not play at all, because she didn't know the right way to play with them. To her daughter, it probably wouldn't have mattered how they played, because at least they were playing together.
I think the biggest reason for why we lose our childhood creativity is because we develop an awareness of others and reality. My co-worker's daughter isn't aware of reality when she's playing with her Barbies, so she can play effortlessly and carelessly. My co-worker, however, might be afraid of what her daughter will think of her if she can't play right. She's also aware of what other people will think of her playing with dolls at her age. There's also the fact that she probably has a million things on her mind, such as chores, work, money, relationships, etc. All of these thoughts place her in reality instead of her daughter's imagination.
Dr. Carlson’s point about spending more time in reality and less in imagination is very valid, but I want to be approach it a little differently. Children have an innate self-centeredness and selfishness that is completely natural and necessary for their growth. It doesn’t mean they can’t be selfless, because my little sister is selfless and considerate of others often. She notices the snacks I like, and whenever we go on trips anywhere, she either packs a special snack for me, or makes sure that her mom packed them with the other snacks. So sweet.
The kind of self-centeredness I’m talking about is the one that places children in their own world, which doesn’t necessarily mean a make-believe world. It’s their little bubble of parents, siblings, friends, and school. Nothing else outside their bubble matters, nor do they even know about it. As they get older, they learn the world is bigger than what they’ve perceived. The world is more than mom and dad, it also has other cities with other families, where people are taught and do different things. It has people that are richer or poorer than them. It has people that are nicer and meaner than what they’re used to. So, as we get older, we naturally stop living in our daydreams and our own little realities, because we learn about other realities. We become more aware of other people, their problems, their lives, what we think of them, and more importantly, what they think of us.
This awareness of others is both good and bad. It is what takes us out of our imagination and into the “real world,” and it’s what also teaches us selflessness and consideration of others. It’s necessary to mature and to acquire the ability to help and take care of others. It’s what makes adults, well, adults. For my sister’s birthday, we went camping (fake camping, because we rented an RV), and I honestly don’t know how parents enjoy themselves on trips, because all I saw my dad and stepmom do was work, so that my sister and I could have fun and play. My dad cooked, my stepmom cleaned, while my sister and I went swimming, built a sandcastle, and did a lot of other exhausting things. But if my dad and stepmom had played with us and didn’t work, then we would have all had a much less enjoyable experience. I appreciate them, and parents everywhere, because they understand sacrifice and responsibility so that their children can have fun.
The more we have to live in the real world, be responsible, focus on work or whatever needs to get done, the less we live in our imagination. So, I understand my co-worker who didn’t know how to play Barbies with her daughter. Honestly, I don’t even know how to play with dolls anymore. I remember when I was a kid, I would develop elaborate stories with my dolls that would last for days, and create makeshift houses and castles out of legos and the small desk and chair set that I had. Whenever it was time for bed, my dad asked me to put away all my toys, but I explained that I couldn't because they were in the middle of a story. I had to leave them in certain spots so they could continue the story the next day. Now as an adult, I’ve tried playing dolls a few times with my sister, but I can’t enter the imagination of her world. We actually both get bored and move on to something else pretty quickly. I'm also fairly convinced she doesn't know how to play with dolls, because her version of play involves prescripted lines that I'm supposed to follow, but I never do. She gets pretty mad at that. It's kind of funny. Interestingly, I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in my inability to pretend with my sister during the past two years.
These past two years are when I started “adulting” big time. College was fun, and only a college grad can say that I miss studying for exams and doing homework. I don’t even consider myself a full adult yet, but now I have a real job, paying bills, and I just found an apartment that I’ll be moving into soon, so I’ll be paying even more bills. Now most of my thoughts and time involve money, thinking about the future, and figuring out my life. Most of my sister’s thoughts involve school and play.
Adults could learn a lot from kids, such as being able to pretend and play more. Play, either with a significant other, friends, pets, or children, has so many benefits for adults. It can relieve stress, improve brain function, boost creativity, improve relationships, and keep you feeling young and energetic. The article, “The Benefits of Play for Adults” says that in our romantic relationships, “Through regular play, we learn to trust one another and feel safe. Trust enables us to work together, open ourselves to intimacy, and try new things.” The benefits extend to work, emotional health, and many other aspects of our lives.
Regardless of that fact that my imagination and creativity aren’t what they used to be, I hope I never become a full-fledged boring adult who can never pretend. I hope that I will always have the imagination and creativity to play with kids. As a writer, and a big sister, my imagination is incredibly important to me. Also, creativity is very important in the adult world when it comes to jobs and the ability to problem-solve. Robertson says that the best way to cultivate creativity and problem-solving skills is to pretend. If you were playing with a five year old, and didn’t worry about what anyone else thought of you, how would you act? What games would you play? What could you invent? If you were that five year old, where would your imagination take you?
p.s. I really wanted to add this one too
The Benefits of Play for Adults
Killing Creativity: Why Children Draw Pictures of Monsters and Adults Don't
Why You Should Have a Child-Like Imagination
Age and Creativity
Stereotypes and Divergent Thinking