Why Creativity Is Just As Important As Literacy

by Meghan Fitzgerald

What is Creativity?

Creativity is the ability to both imagine original ideas or solutions to problems and actually do what needs to be done to make them happen.  It is not just a critical skill for artists or musicians, but an extremely valuable way of thinking about -- and being in -- the world.

Why does it matter?

Sir Ken Robinson put it best when he said, "Creativity is as important now in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

Why, you ask? For one, it is through being creative that a person is able to get their senses, sensibility and spirit working together. Simply put, our kids need creativity to live a full life.

Creativity is also the means by which humans of all ages make an impact on the world and other people around them. A lot of heavy stuff is going to go down in our kids' lifetime, and their generation will need to imagine and implement solutions to big and very complicated problems.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity are the three most important skills a child will need to thrive. Furthermore, creativity jumped from 10th place to third place in only the past five years. And, although our kids are still far from public office or the boardroom, today's political and business leaders worldwide already point to creativity as the most important leadership quality for the future.

How do kids develop creativity?

Children are born with it, but it’s hard to stay creative.

The kicker in all of this is that humans begin their lives with the habits that creative adults retain and build throughout their lifetimes. Children are driven by curiosity, asking questions at every turn and experimenting and learning through play. They do not let the conventional or “right” way to use an object limit its possible uses. Sure, a bowl is a bowl, but it’s also a hat, an instrument, just the right stepping stool for reaching the cookie jar, and more. And, as we see in the patterns in children’s behavior, they are naturally driven to take things apart and transform them into other things— which are core actions in the creative process.

Unfortunately, this mindset is often diminished or even lost when young children enter conventional schooling. When given the Torrance Test of Creativity, 98 percent of kindergarteners score as creative geniuses, while only 3% of people remain in that category by age 25. Even worse, American K-12 students have significantly decreased in their Torrence creativity scores since 1990, with scores decreasing the most among kids in kindergarten to third grade. 

This loss is largely driven by the shift in focus from purposeful, playful learning to learning discrete skills. The more kids are trained to perform, and the more a particular right answer becomes the goal of learning activities, the more the mind narrows its focus and fears failure or being wrong.

“To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.”
— Joseph Chilton Pearce

This is not to say there is no place for right answers—we all need to learn that when you divide 300 by 20 there is only one correct answer. But, if a child can learn to divide by playing with objects, pictures and numbers before they learn the algorithm, they can learn the fundamental underpinnings of mathematics and continue to nurture their creative mindset by learning from both right and wrong outcomes.


So, what can we do?

Many Tinkergarten explorers are not yet in math class, but it won’t be long. Some of our older explorers already are. Thankfully, there are certain kinds of play experiences that contribute to developing a strong foundation in creativity. By foundation, we mean developing a set of key creativity mindsets or truths, including:

  • There are infinite possible uses for any object.
  • There are many possible solutions to any problem.
  • The messier the better.
  • “Wrong” outcomes lead to the “right” outcomes.
  • We can take things apart and make new things.

These are all truths that are really easy for little kids to grasp—they come into life thinking this way. So, it’s our job to fill their creativity buckets with loads of experiences that reinforce these truths, and continue to reinforce these ideas as a family. As Maya Angelou said, "You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have." So, the more creativity-boosting experiences the better! If we give these experiences to our kids, they will bring these truths into their schooling, giving them the best possible shot to carry a creative mindset into adulthood.

Get started today preserving your child’s creative capacity. Try these eight exercises to nurture the foundations of creativity:

  • Give kids purposeful play experiences. Humans creativity always has some kind of starting point. Just be sure to offer the starting point and then give plenty of space for kids to take it from there. Try some of these DIY ideas to start.

  • A truth a week: Take one of the truths listed above and repeat it to yourself as you watch your child play each week. How do you contribute to reinforcing that truth? How might you unwittingly undermine it? It’s hard, for example, not to step in to help kids when you see that they are building a tower that is certain to fall. But, from a creativity standpoint, a child will learn so much more from seeing a flawed solution through and learning from the results. It’s amazing how really focusing on each of these truths can lead to changes in our behavior!

  • Encourage (or even just allow) kids to make messes. Not all kids will want to get as messy as others (we all have different sensory systems). But, there is great wisdom to the saying, “Play messy today, think messy (or freely) later.” When we allow kids to make mud, mix different paints together, or dump out all of the toys to see what happens, we allow them the chance to get comfortable acting freely and exploring a wider range of possibilities. In short, we’re giving them the go ahead to play outside the box so they can think outside the box later on.

  • Cheer when kids take things apart. There is great value in destruction -- it’s one of the key creative acts. Meanwhile, gently teach them that not all objects (e.g. the remote control or your neighbor’s flower bed) are open for destruction.

  • Remember, every object has infinite uses to the creative mind. Try to never correct a child’s use of an object unless they are using something in an unsafe way (and even then, try to find a better way to say “be careful.”)

  • Model creative thinking yourself. If you have a creative practice, be sure to share that with your kids. Or, play alongside them as you try out creativity-boosting activities together. Model using everyday objects in novel ways. Model failing and trying again. It’s actually a whole lot of fun once you let yourself go!