Even before a child is born, parents (and grandparents!) talk about the things they will do, the great feats they will accomplish in their lifetimes. He might find a cure for cancer. She might be the first female president. He will broker peace around the world. She will end homelessness.
Children arrive with so much potential. And as they grow, we tell them to dream big. For every milestone we remind them they can do awesome things. We are, after all, their biggest cheerleaders. And we want so much for them.
The message we are trying to send is an earnest one: you can do or be anything you set your mind to. So, we enroll them in lessons when they show an interest in an instrument or a sport. We take them to the library to check out books on their latest obsession. We do everything we can to cultivate their imaginations, support their endeavors, open doors, and to show them the greatness they are capable of. All these grand gestures encourage them to follow that little glimmer that asks, what if I try...?
But we are also cautious. As adults, we’ve seen failure; we’ve felt it. So we buffer our encouragement with reminders to be thoughtful about ambitions, to weigh the pros and cons, and look at things with an analytical eye. A fascinating study by NASA reveals that it is precisely these small reminders that inhibit the innovation of young minds.
Curious to know who were the most creative minds among their scientists and engineers, NASA commissioned Dr. George Land and Beth Jarman to come up with a test to help measure imagination and the ability to conceive of new ideas. They were successful and the test helped NASA identify the most qualified candidates to work on some of their toughest problems. However, Land and Jarman were left with one glaring question: where does creativity come from? Is it something we are all born with?
The test they designed was relatively simple, so they decided to test school-aged children to see if the results might point to some answers. The sample they worked with consisted of 1,600 four and five-year olds. Ninety-eight percent of the children scored in the “genius” category of imagination. These results were so interesting, they decided to test the same children five years later. The number of kids who scored in the genius category dropped to thirty percent. And five years later, the number dropped again to twelve percent.
I bet you’re wondering how adults fare on this test. I was too. Only two percent of adults score in the genius category. Astonishing, isn’t it? But these results don’t have to leave us feeling hopeless. Dr. Land asserts that we can find ourselves, and indeed our children, in that remarkable category called “genius” if we simply change the way we think and approach problems.
There are two different kinds of thinking: divergent, which is imagination, and the other is convergent, which is analytical and critical. Dr. Land explains, “One is like the accelerator and the other one is like the brake. We found that what happens to these children as we educate them is we teach them to do both kinds of thinking at the same time.” That means that as a child thinks up a solution or idea, they are simultaneously thinking of all the ways it might not work, inhibiting their ability to be creative.
Of course, when children are conditioned to think this way, they do not limit it to academic problems. They apply this same thinking to all aspects of life, including their daydreams and desires. While dreaming up possibility, they automatically consider what obstacles they might encounter, or the ways in which they might fail.
What we don’t realize is we often encourage simultaneous divergent and convergent thinking when talking our kids through activities. Think about a toddler playing with building blocks. As they manipulate and stack the pieces, adults often interject with what they think are helpful tips. “That’s too heavy; it’s going to fall.” “Be careful.” “That won’t fit.” “You already tried that.”
We see the value of toys that encourage the imagination, like blocks, art supplies, or musical instruments. Yet, we temper their imagination by reminding them to use logic while they play and explore. Don’t get me wrong, logic serves a purpose. We need our logical brains just as much as we need our daydreaming minds. What this study points to is the importance of allowing these two thought processes to act independently of each other. Dream first, sort out the practical details later.
Rav Berg taught that, "Our minds are as basic to the fabric of reality as time, space, and matter." From a kabbalistic point of view, we are each born with unique creative gifts we are meant to share with the world and use to reach our highest potential. But the unfortunate truth is that we are, as a whole, simply not living up to that potential. The astounding results of Land and Jarman’s research supports this. We cannot dream of a new reality and begin to make significant changes in the world while we take into consideration all the ways in which that reality may be impossible.
So, the question remains: how can we ensure our children will continue to use divergent thinking and keep an active imagination? Well, according to Dr. Land, the capability to use one’s imagination never goes away, no matter how old you get. And we activate it when we daydream. Start by encouraging your child to focus on possibility before allowing the critical brain to jump in. It can be incredibly hard to teach a child there is no wrong answer, or to set aside the possibility that an idea may not work. As soon as they enter a traditional learning environment, kids pick up the notion that the right answer is the best answer and begin to see little value in all possibilities.
Praise them for silly, fantastical, or outrageous ideas. Who cares if they are plausible? There’s a game I like to play with my four-year-old called “what if.” I start by saying something ridiculous, like, “What if we had toes for teeth?” She will answer with something equally ridiculous, like, “What if monkeys had garden hoses for tails?” We go back and forth making each other giggle, each trying to come up with a “what if” more comical and amazing than the last.
Encourage your kids to find multiple solutions to a problem before deciding which course of action to take. Ask them to improve upon an everyday object they take for granted, like a backpack, a step stool, or a ball point pen. Allow them to try things out before telling them what will or will not work. Let them decide what works best. With my kids, I try to instill the idea that no energy is ever wasted. Overall, I think it has encouraged them to not only be inventive in their ideas, but to give their best effort despite the perceived reward in the end.
- That won't work.
- You tried that already.
- Use your head.
- That won't fit.
- That's going to break.
- I see you're trying something new.
- Looks like you're going to give it another go.
- Let's think about it differently.
- I see you trying to make that fit.
- I don't want that to break. Let's try a different way.
Then, I challenge you to try using this language on yourself. For the beautiful future we dream of cannot become a reality until we each believe we have the power to make it happen.