How many of us remember the large cardboard boxes that home appliances came packaged in that we used to play with as kids? Remember the forts we used to build, the houses we used to design, the scores of things we used to create from them?
Or the old rags or hats we used to fashion as dress-up clothes? Or the newspaper pages that became helmets or ships or the sheets of paper that became airplanes?
All these things were part of what child development specialists and psychologists say are essential ingredients in the creative development of children. And all are linked to allowing children to have more free time to play without being instructed as to “proper rules and methods.”
Makeshift Toys Stimulate Creativity
“What is valuable for children is freedom where they are solving problems with no predictable answer,” explains Robert Bilder, a clinical neuropsychologist and director of the Biology of Creativity in Los Angeles. “When it is open-ended, they retain the curiosity to learn more things. And that is going to be essential for their futures.”
But many or the same child development specialists now bemoan the fact that more and more toys and activities for children do not allow for the creativity that these makeshift playthings of the past did. The plain cardboard boxes were used creatively by so many children that they were named to the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2005. Now a parent can order a prefabricated cardboard kit with instructions on Amazon, or a child can simulate games online using a smartphone. Nice pre-packaged technology, but where’s the product that the wonderful creativity of a child’s brain can produce.
“Creativity in children involves the ability to make things up and generate ideas of their own,” observes Sandra Russ, professor of psychological sciences at Cleveland’s Case Western University.
Recess Time Should Not Be Cut
The issue of childhood spontaneous creativity has arisen recently around the issue of free play time in elementary schools. As attention has been focused on academic achievement in recent years, many schools have cut down on recesses during the school day. The New York Times reported on March 2 that elementary schools in one district in Connecticut has limited free time to one 20-minute recess after lunch per day. One parent, who had moved into the district from another state where recess time was twice as much, found her children restless and cranky and difficulty to focus on homework after school, which she attributed to the pent-up energy that would have been expressed in schoolyard play. Recently elected to state legislature, she now supports a bill requiring schools to provide at least 50 minutes a day of undirected play for children from pre-school to fifth grade.
Such play can result in ordinary games with set rules or it can result in games that children often improvise on the spot. In younger children, it can take the form of building with blocks or other makeshift materials that stimulate rather than inhibit curiosity and wonder. On any level, according to D. Bilder, when children are confronted with a open-ended problem, they are more likely to explore a variety of relationships and patterns than when they are confronted with toys and learning materials with preset instructions or rules. The rules are learned during regular instruction time, but there must be ample time during the school day for children to engage in their own unstructured time.
Creative time also give children “the opportunity to learn social skills,” said the Connecticut parent and state legislator. “It builds relationships.” Learning how to negotiate, listen to others, and test each other’s ideas are an important part of the process of learning.