What do an author and an inventor have in common—Brandon Mull, author of the Fablehaven and Beyonders series, and the Wright brothers? These people all have an innovation that we, as Americans, often associate with ourselves. However, looking for this trait in our general population, especially our children, we often have a hard time seeing it. Where has it gone? What are we doing wrong? Our problem is in our society, which runs in such a way that creativity and innovation is discouraged, especially among our school-age generation.
The way American society runs shuts down much of the population’s creativity in a relatively short amount of time. In 1968, a study was conducted on children’s abilities to think in ways considered to be “out-of-the-box.” 16,000 children were tracked from the time they were three to the time they were 15. When between three and five, 98 percent of the children passed this test. This dropped quickly, going to 32 percent when they were between eight and 10, to 10 percent between 13 and 15. This same test was given to a group of 280,000 25-year-olds and only two percent passed the same test. (Florida) This fast decrease in general creativity—88 percent in 10 years—is the result of things we give our children to do. Many toys which children play with are meant to be one specific thing or reach a specific purpose, such as dolls or action figures depicting movie characters that already have names and, often, scripts programmed in, and building kits with instructions to build something specific. (Linn) This does not allow them to create their own situations with the toys, because they believe that these things that the toys say, they are the only things they can be. This notion is assisted by our society telling them that same thing, so we are hindering their creativity by not allowing them to think outside of the box.
In our society, many of the situations we put ourselves in have short-term payoffs, such as high-stakes tests in public schools and fast return on investments in the economy. These lead to an inability to look much past a few days or weeks. This leads to low creativity because people don’t think they need it immediately, and they aren’t thinking enough beyond the present to care. We all need to turn more toward the long-term because “creativity thrives in an environment” where people are working on “projects that may not have an immediate payoff.” (Conrad) It is hard for elementary schoolers to think about going to high school, but if students, starting in middle school, are slowly introduced to looking past that week, month, school year, then they could start to choose things and create things to fit what they might want to do in the future. People can’t do that with a short-term view.
American children and teenagers spend seven hours of every weekday at school. Most of this time is spent indoors. This could be seen as good for learning, but it is not good for enhancing creativity. According to a study conducted at the University of Kansas, spending a few days outdoors, away from technology, can increase creativity by 50 percent. This is opposed to being indoors, where we have lots of technology and distractions that vie for our attention, drawing it toward ideas thought of by others and away from our own original ideas. This runs into every aspect of our lives, so that by the time these students become high schoolers, we often don’t want to spend much time outside. Spending so much time inside, therefore, doesn’t help our sense of creativity much—if at all. When a sense of the outdoors is lost, a large part of creativity is lost.
Many Americans are still creating new, innovative things to help themselves and others. Looking at this, you could say that American creativity and innovation is still going strong, and is still our “most inexhaustible” resource. (Florida) However, the people who make these things, who are credited with creating them, are not the majority of Americans. Most Americans have had their sense of innovation drained out of them by their own habits and ways. Also, many Americans work jobs that only require them to know how to do something fairly repetitively, how to tell things apart, how to put them together, and things like them that don’t require much innovation. That thinking is left to people like writers, inventors, and people who have to create things for a living. Therefore, although there are many very creative people in our country, the general American population has lost most of its creativity.
The creativity that once seemed to define American culture is disappearing, and it is because of what we give ourselves and our children—too much noise, too much set creation for playthings, too much short-term payoff—and what we don’t give them—enough freedom in play, enough time in nature. If we want our children to have that creativity that we know they could have, we must give them more of what they need, and less of what they have come to want.
Conrad, Cecilia. "Our Society Discourages Innovation." The New York Times Room for Debate. The New York Times, 23 July 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.
Florida, Richard. "Cities Are the Fonts of Creativity." The New York Times Room for Debate. The New York Times, 15 Sept. 2013. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.
Lawrence. "KU News Release." Researchers Find Time in Wild Boosts Creativity, Insight and Problem Solving. University of Kansas, 23 Apr. 2012. Web. 06 Nov. 2014.
Linn, Susan. "Marketing to Children Drowns out Innovation." The New York Times Room for Debate. The New York Times, 15 Sept. 2013. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.