How to build creative thinking skills

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We’re generally big fans of WNYC’s Note to Self with Manoush Zomorodi. But, the episode “LEGO Kits and Your Creative Soul” is especially worth a listen if you’re curious about how different types of play might boost your kid's and your own creative abilities.

We were excited about the episode because it supports something we feel pretty strongly about at Tinybop: free, unstructured play fosters increased creativity. In building all of our Digital Toys apps, we intentionally leave out rules.

We think of the apps as Tinker Toys for digital natives. Instead of blocks, wheels, and sticks, the apps are composed of pieces that can likewise be combined in infinite ways. Admittedly, we don’t even know how many different things can be made with the apps. We hope to give kids and parents the tools to create things we never imagined, in ways we never imagined: each app offers multiple paths to countless outcomes. This is important to us because:

Only one way of doing things leads to only one outcome: a lack of creativity
We’re not just saying this; it’s backed by research! Zomorodi interviews University of Wisconsin professor Page Moreau about a study she did with a bunch of college students. One group of students was given a well-defined problem: they were told to build something with a LEGO kit. The other group was given an ill-defined problem: they were told to free build anything from a pile of LEGO. The students were then given one of two tasks: to solve analogies like you would on an SAT test, or to complete an aspect of the Torrance Tests of Creativity—a measurement (like an IQ test) for creative thinking.

The results from the students building with kits were “less elaborate, less abstract, and less original.” It appears that following instructions, or as Moreau puts it, following a single path to a single outcome, limits creative thinking. And it makes sense. When building from a kit, you’re following a set of rules, and along the way, learning how to follow rules. You’re rewarded for doing so when you complete the project and it looks exactly how you expected it to, which encourages you to continue following the rules. And the more you do something, the harder it is to stop or do something else. It’s increasingly difficult to create your own path or rules and recognize that there might be multiple possible outcomes.

Zomorodi points out Moreau’s results echo earlier studies that indicated a “creativity crisis.” As kids get better at standardized testing, yielding higher scores, their creativity declines. Another study revealed that kids who spent two hours a week playing sports in an unstructured environment grew up to be more creative adults than kids who spent four or more hours a week playing organized sports.

This doesn’t mean that LEGO kits, standardized testing, and organized sports are all inherently bad. Moreau concedes they help build concentration, persistence, and other valuable skills. But time dedicated to them is time that kids don’t spend playing or thinking freely, without rules or instructions.

Time for free, unstructured play is good for all of us
Moreau initiated her study because she noticed that as adults we use a lot of technologies that, “keep us from reveling in uncertainty, essentially…when you can’t remember a word, you can Google it, you know, you’re never lost, you know what the weather is…[these technologies are] making us used to being correct.” The tools we rely on everyday provide a single path to a single outcome. Yes, they’re helpful. But they’re making us less creative.

So what can we do? We don’t have to start attempting to navigate by the sun and stars instead of turning to our devices (though I recommend looking up at them next time you’re wandering around). Zomorodi suggests just improvising a little more often: throwing a meal together with what you have in the fridge instead of following a recipe. Moreau says try a game of free association to boost your creative thinking and make connections between things you wouldn’t usually put together. Or, as Stuart Dredge recommends over on Apps Playground, you can play The Everything Machine with your kids. And if you all want some offscreen free play, here are some of our favorite building toys.