by Meghan Fitzgerald
Creativity is actually a complicated, rather elegant set of skills. But, one simple skill lies at the heart of creativity—divergent thinking. Understanding divergent thinking has really helped give the teacher and parent in me a starting place from where to see each of my kids’ own creative capacity. And, it has helped me find easy, powerful ways to help them nurture their creativity for the long haul.
There are two types of thinking that help us solve problems and bring new ideas to life: convergent and divergent. They’re both essential to us, and they are essential to our kids. But, only one of them is supported by schools and dominant culture today. Let's talk about why they both matter and what we can do to ensure our kids have strength on both sides of the creative thinking coin.
We can think of convergent thinking as the thinking you do when you select or “converge” around the best answer to a given problem. With as much speed and accuracy as possible, you focus in and try to view things as black or white, right or wrong. The aim is to land on the most effective solution or idea.
In school settings, kids use convergent thinking when they answer questions like “What is 5+5?,” respond to multiple choice prompts, or complete tasks with a single, correct outcome. Convergent thinking is also essential to the myriad decisions we all make every single day, like what we're going to make for dinner, what to wear, and which errands we'll actually get done.
“Divergent thinking is the center of human creativity.”― Amit Ray
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have divergent thinking. Rather than honing in on a single, correct answer, divergent thinking allows us to generate the greatest number of ideas in a given situation. In the most free-flowing and open way possible, you allow the mind to move in a multitude of different directions in order to discover new options. Divergent thinking is therefore a core component of creativity — this ability to generate fuels our ability to create.
In school settings, we use divergent thinking to answer questions like “? + ? = 10.” Even though the underlying math is the same as “2+2,” the question, asked this way, can lead to multiple answers, making it a perfect prompt for divergent thinking. Ask kids to imagine new characters and stories, or give them loose parts and the time to create with them, and they’ll readily put divergent thinking to work.
In life, divergent thinking helps us generate a large set of choices, giving us the most possible chances to innovate and identify creative solutions. It’s easy to imagine that scientists, engineers, artists and other “creative” types use divergent thinking quite often. But, we all could use a little more divergent thinking in our lives—even if it’s just setting aside 10 minutes on Sunday night to brainstorm possible dinners for the week ahead (so hard to do some weeks)...Just think: the menu to follow would be much tastier for it!
But divergent thinking is also essential to solving issues far more urgent than meal planning. Our kids will surely need to develop both convergent and divergent thinking skills to address an ever-changing world full of challenges that seem to grow more complicated by the moment. Indeed, they’ll need to converge around efficient and accurate ideas with confidence. But, if our kids are not ready to stretch their minds and generate multiple possibilities, then they may never even discover the answers that will leapfrog them — and society as a whole — forward.
“There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.”—Edward de Bono
As a culture, we tend to be great at convergent thinking, and we get better and better at it as we age. But, the capacity for divergent thinking we’re all born with tends to fall off a cliff shortly after we reach school age.
Although alarming, these trends make a lot of sense given how life works today. Our education system and typical extracurricular activities are largely designed to reward convergent thinking. Most formal schooling in the US is focused on tasks with one right answer (again, 5+5=?). Plus our grading system, tends to incentivize students to work toward whatever answer will get them an “A,” rather than encouraging them to think outside the box.
The decline of free time in favor of structured activities like longer school days and extracurriculars also contributes to the premium we place on convergent thinking (A recent study by Pediatrics shows that children are given far less free time to play both at school and at home). Instead of open-ended, generative play, kids are spending more and more time drilling skills with tutors, practicing instruments with precision, or honing athletic performance. Although math, music and sports can all be wonderfully creative endeavors, our kids are rewarded for getting the correct right answer as quickly as they can, nailing the note or scoring the most points.
With all of this support for the convergent side, it’s not surprising that our capacity for divergent thinking declines as we grow up. And that loss is getting more and more dramatic with each generation. Just look at the results of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT), which is commonly used to assess divergent thinking. Ninety-eight percent of children in kindergarten score as “creative geniuses,” while only 3% of people score at that level by age 25. Furthermore, children’s scores on the TTCT have declined in recent decades. In 2008, more than 85% of children in grades K-12 scored lower than the average child did in 1984.
Research by Dr. Leonard Brzozowski, George Land and Beth Jarman also goes to show that divergent thinking diminishes with age. When they asked kindergartners how many ways they could use a cup, a pencil, or a shoe, each child gave up to 100 valid answers, scoring similarly to adults with high intellectual abilities,. When 10-year-old children took the test, their scores showed a 60% drop.
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”—Albert Einstein
Humans start out being rather marvelous at divergent thinking. Some early results from assessments like the Unusual Box Test suggest this ability is already brewing in infants and toddlers, while additional research shows it practically exploding in children ages 4 to 6. We've long known that 90% of brain development happens in the first five years, so, as parents and teachers, we need to use this magic window wisely. Simply give your little ones continuous opportunities to practice divergent thinking and you can help them boost their creativity for the long haul. Here's how to start.
1—Give kids time for free, open-ended play! Get them off screens and into situations in where they’ll need to use objects in multiple, different ways. If you’re in need of inspiration, you can visit our activities page for more than one hundred easy ways to prompt open-ended play in the best creative space of all — the outdoors.
2—Try the “cup challenge.” Try to replicate Brzozowski’s divergent thinking research at home with this simple test: Hand your kid a cup and ask, "What can you do with this?" Once they show you, ask, “What else can you do with it?” Keep going to see how many answers they can come up with — and how many you can come up with too. It’s a great way to test your own divergent thinking.
3—Play, “It’s not a ____, it’s a _____.” Start with a household object or nature treasure you find outdoors. (Sticks, leaves, stones, and feathers will all do the trick.). Hold it up and ask, “Do you know what this is?” Follow up with, “Hmm...This is not a stick, it’s a....” Pause to see if your child can invent a new use for it. Or, share a few ideas of your own to get things rolling. A stick can be an infinite number of things from fishing pole to a shovel to a horse. Need some inspiration for the game? Check out Antoinette Portis’s marvelous Not a Stick and Not a Box books, or come to Tinkergarten this Spring season!
4—Let kids get bored and learn to work through it. Boredom can be unnerving to us: kids who are actively engaged in something (anything!) feel easier to manage. But, boredom can be the mother of invention and a marvelous starting point for divergent thinking. When kids get bored, ask them questions that prompt open-ended, creative thinking: “What else could you do?” “How could you use the blocks, the LEGOs, your stuffed animals, in a new way today?” “What adventure can you go on today?”
5—Find easy ways to use day to day moments. Take advantage of a trip to the grocery store, time in the backyard or even a ride in the car to test out one of the prompts above.
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