Creative Thinking in Young Children and Adults

Young children sometimes come up with a surprising fresh idea. They suggest something or do something in a way that we would never imagine ourselves.

Imagine ways to be a kid again

Look at the following suggestion made by 4-year-old Augie when his grandfather said, “I wish I could be a kid again.

But before you read Augie’s suggestion, why not make a list of ideas that could turn an adult into a child again, for example, a youth pill.

Augie suggested that his grandpa should try not eating any vegetables. It seems that Augie had grown up hearing the famous phrase that eating vegetables turns children into strong big adults. So not eating the vegetables should reverse the process.

Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist and philosopher, says that “No grown-up would ever come up with that idea.” She believes that young children’s creativity are more powerful than the most imaginative adult.

Are children more creative than adults?

There are several studies that support the suggestion that children are more creative than adults. It seems that our skill to come up with unusual idea change as we grow older. One suggested reason for the decline is that as we grow older, we know more. Knowledge and experience is mostly an advantage but it may also lead us to ignore things that contradict what we know. As we grow older we may become less flexible and we may be less likely to adopt an initially unfamiliar idea.

Schools need to change

There is a common viewpoint that modern educational systems around the world need to change. School kills creativity is a famous quote from Ken Robinson, whose TED “How school kills creativity” is one of the most watched TED-talks.

Education is based on ideas that were based on the type of citizen that was needed during the Industrial Revolution. A system based on teaching methods suitable for mass education. Nowadays we need people who is very creative and who can innovate.


A longitudinal study of creative thinking 

The idea that school kills creativity can also be seen when the results from an old study by George Land is discussed. In 1968, he was asked by NASA to develop a creativity assessment. NASA needed to increase innovation and they needed to hire the most creative engineers and scientists.

The test that he developed was so successful that they decided to use it on four and five year-olds to test their level and their creative thinking.

To their astonishment they found that 98 percent of the four to five year-old children were genius on the creative thinking scale. They continued to follow this group of children and assessed them when they turned 10 and they to their surprise only 30 percent of the children scored in the genius level.  At the age of 15 only 12 percent scored in the genius-level. Over 300, 000 adults completed the test, average age 31, and only two percent of them scored in the genius-level for creative thinking.

The test results:

  • 98% (5 years old)
  • 30% (10 years old)
  • 12% (15 years old)
  • 2% (280,000 adults)

Land concluded that “non-creative behavior is learned.”

Yet, the suggestion that schooling in itself is the underlying reason for decline in creative thinking is perhaps in itself an answer that lacks divergent thinking. There is no search for other possible underlying reasons.  In contrast to convergent thinking, divergent thinking is regarded as a way to generate creative ideas by exploring possible solutions.

Why would creativity decline?

Knowledge and experience may be responsible for a decline in creative approach to thinking. When we have more experience we  quickly figure out how certain things work and there is no need tto be creative and to test different hypotheses and search for other possibilities. There are fewer things that are new and mysterious. Or at least we are encouraged to think so. It is often regarded as a waste of time to explore things and search for other possible ways to doing something 

It is also possible that depending on the topic the creative approach to thinking may vary.

Alison and colleagues found that preschoolers performed better than school-aged children, who in turn performed better than adolescents and adults when asked to solve a  problems in the physical domain. A scenario involving a physical machine that lit up when you put some combinations of blocks on it, but not others. was used to test children as well as adolescents and adults.

In the social domain, preschoolers and adolescents were the most flexible learners. The participants were told a story about Sally, who approached a skateboard, and Josie, who avoided a scooter. The usual explanation was that something about Sally’s and Josie’s individual traits made them act as they did, for example, Sally was braver than Josie. A more unusual explanation was that something about the situation was important — maybe the skateboard was safer than the scooter.

“We argue that there may be a developmental trade-off between cognitive abilities that allow organisms to learn the structure of a new physical or social environment, abilities that are characteristic of children, and the more adult abilities that allow skilled action on a familiar environment.”

More facts does not change the pattern

This pattern did not change even after another group of children and adults saw the same scenarios but they also saw facts that made the usual explanation more likely than the obvious one. Both teenager and adults were more likely to stick to the obvious explanation, even when the suggestion did not fit the information

Two kinds of approaches to thinking

Two kinds of thinking might lie behind these results. Exploration and exploitation.  When we face a new problem children usually explore the topic and try to find something new. This approach may result in a more usual idea. Adults exploit the knowledge about the world that we have acquired so far. The goal is to find a pretty good solution as quickly as possible solution that is close to solution that is already familiar to us. Children may instead waste time considering crazy possibilities that will never work.

Our long childhood and adolescence give us time to explore before we have to enter adulthood and face the stern realities of being grown-up.

Children are like fluttering butterflies when they are exploring the world. When we grow older less, fewer paths are used, and the butterfly transforms into a caterpillar that are using and strengthening certain paths. To be creative, you need to be able to consider possibilities and to keep as many paths as possibly open.


Can a creative approach to thinking be taught?

Creativity is not some mysterious gene or stuff. Everyone can learn to generate new ideas and enjoy thinking about new solutions. The more you encourage your child to use his mind to think more creatively, the more likely it is that he will grow up enjoying finding solutions.

And adults can learn to use different techniques to help them explore different possible solutions.

How long can a child continue to test different ways of putting his socks on? Most parents do not allow it in the morning. . . so there is often little encourage to be creative. 

Spontaneous use of creative thinking

The above studies share a common approach used in reasearch, namely that the focus is on examining whether a child or an adult can spontaneously use a specific ability or skill. More research is needed to examine if older children, adolescents can use a more creative approach to thinking if they are explicitly told to do so and also shown an example of what would be classified as a creative solution.

It would also be interesting to find out how children would classify different answers. What criteria would a child use to determine if answers are creative?

There are many ways to open up both children’s and adult’s thinking. Start to search for possibilities!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s