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Jenn Ackerman, For the Deseret News
Corrina Harrington, 3, of Eau Claire, Wis., plays with air blowers in the Forces at Play exhibit at the Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016.

The only digital media to be seen in the Minnesota Children’s Museum on a Tuesday morning are smartphones in the hands of parents, straining to snap photos of the flock of preschool-age children filing into the “Forces at Play” exhibit.

Normally, many of these children might be eager to play with the phones recording them as they bundle into yellow rain slickers to keep them dry in a play carwash. But this morning they’re too drawn in by water hoses and bubbles to care about tooling around an app.

That’s by design, said museum director of learning and impact Nichole Polifka. The museum is undergoing a complete remodel to give 21st-century children more of what Polifka says they desperately need: Unstructured, hands-on play away from a screen.

“We knew from research that creativity was lacking, we knew play was declining. We knew a lot of things were replacing imagination and play among children, including technology,” Polifka said. “With the world changing as much as it is, it’s impossible to know what to prepare your children for. They’re going to have jobs and solve problems that don’t even exist yet.”

To properly prepare children for an unpredictable future, experts say children’s imagination and creativity development is incredibly important. Creativity is tied to many skills 21st century employers are seeking, particularly innovation and critical thinking. There’s just one problem — many educators and researchers think creativity is declining.

A 2010 study from the College of William and Mary examining more than 300,000 creativity tests dating back to the 1970s found that creativity has declined generally among American children. Researchers studied results of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, an exam often called the "gold standard" for measuring creativity in children. The test is widely trusted because of its high correlation rate between its scores and future accomplishments — high test scores on a Torrance test correlated to three times more lifetime accomplishments than child IQ tests.

The findings stated that children were becoming less humorous, less imaginative and less able to generate unique ideas. While creativity is innate in humans from birth, it’s a quality that has to be nurtured to be useful, like any skill.

Experts say there are a lot of reasons for this decline, including an educational model that leans heavily on testing, but an increase in childhood technology use is a factor.

“Focus is the superpower of the 21st century. You need to be able to think deeply to get ideas and put them into action,” said creativity researcher and UC Berkeley sociologist Christine Carter. “But a brain that’s used to being highly stimulated can’t do deep work. It can write a tweet, it can’t write a book.”

The consequences of a creativity decline are dire, said Wellesley College psychology professor and creativity researcher Beth Hennessey.

“Creativity is what moves civilizations forward. Creativity for its own sake is important, but it’s also important for solving the world’s intractable problems — how will we cure Zika or solve global warming or cancer?” Hennessey said. “Without creativity and imagination, none of those thorny problems will be solved.”

Robbie Harrington, 6, and Corrina Harrington, 3, of Eau Claire, Wis., launch ping pong balls in the Forces at Play exhibit at the Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. | Jenn Ackerman, For the Deseret News


No time for free time

Many experts believe child creativity is in decline because children have less time these days to engage in behaviors that foster creative thought.

One of these lost opportunities is in the classroom, said University of Connecticut education professor Ronald Beghetto. Because schools now depend so much on standardized testing, there’s often a focus on getting one correct answer in one specific way. That may help kids succeed in the short term, but it doesn’t help them become more creative because there’s little room for experimentation, Beghetto said.

“When you’re teaching, you’re focused on coming up with the right answer, but one way to help kids out is to ask them, can you solve this math problem in another way?” Beghetto said. “Rather than solving 13 problems one way, they’re solving one problem 13 ways. That’s creativity.”

Another lost opportunity for creativity is vanishing down time, experts say. Things like daydreaming, staring into space or just plain being bored are actually incredibly valuable to developing creativity and imagination, Carter said.

Robbie Harrington, 6, uses a pulley to lift a basket of balls in the air before dropping them at the Minnesota Children's Museum on Nov. 22, 2016. | Jenn Ackerman, For the Deseret News

“We tend to think nothing is happening when we’re daydreaming, but the brain just totally lights up in those moments because that’s when it makes connections between things it didn’t see as connected,” Carter said. “Technology really impacts us in that way because it basically steals all our down time. When kids might have been playing, daydreaming or just waiting for your parents to come pick you up — that’s high creativity-building time that’s now taken up by our devices.”

Hennessey says many parents may think the answer to flagging creativity in their children’s lives is to pack their children’s schedules with activities like music lessons or competitive sports. But Hennessey advises restraint. Rather, she says kids need more screen-free down time to basically just be kids — spending more time playing and daydreaming and less time being told how to accomplish something or glued to a screen.

“Many schools don’t even have recess. Coupled with technology use, it’s like everything mitigates against kids developing creativity,” Hennessey said. “Nobody just sits down and whips something out. Creativity takes time to develop, and we need to give kids the gift of unstructured, free time.”

‘A double-edged sword’

While technology use may seem like a problem for creativity, experts say it all depends on how a particular device or digital media is used.

“It’s a double-edged sword. Kids tied to computers are losing out on unstructured free time where the imagination runs wild,” Hennessey said. “By the same token, technology opens a wide world of information they can access freely that may lead to creative breakthroughs.”

Rather than letting children explore freely online, experts suggest using technology with a specific goal or intention of boosting creativity.

“You can’t get rid of the screen, but you can take advantage of the screen by using it as an opportunity,” said Harvard child psychiatrist Steven Schlozman. “If there’s something your kid wants to be good at, they can literally Google it. In some ways, it’s an incredible gift.”

“Digital media are tools and they can be very supportive of the creative process, but there really is a balance there,” Beghetto said. “It’s really about thinking, ‘What is my goal here?’”

Anne Kelly paints on her daughter's face (Molly Kelly, 2) in the Game Room exhibit at the Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul, Minn., on Nov. 22, 2016. | Jenn Ackerman, For the Deseret News

Carter says that’s why a parent’s role in their children’s media use is crucial to ensure they’re using devices to aid their creativity rather than detract it. Carter used her middle-school-aged daughter as an example.

“We got her an iPad mini specifically for her to read books on, and her book consumption dropped,” Carter said. “Her school librarian sent me an email and said, my most voracious reader isn’t checking out books anymore, what happened? What happened was Instagram.”

Carter took the iPad away from her daughter for a while, citing that she wasn't using it as intended and, as she said, distraction can be an enemy to creativity and critical thinking. She also began watching her daughter's activity on the device more closely (many ebook apps like Kindle track user reading time). Both actions are things Carter says she wishes parents would do more often.

“My biggest battle with parents is convincing them that they can be authoritative about devices. Kids need structure,” Carter said. “You wouldn’t give them the car keys without a provisional license. You can’t give them a device and ask them to monitor themselves.”

Hennessey advised parents to look at their children’s lives as a habitat and ask themselves if it’s an environment that allows kids to be creative.

“Kids are born pre-programmed with huge stores of creativity and motivation,” Hennessey said. “It’s their environment that undermines that creativity."