By Erika Christakis
My newly adopted 9-year-old son is a Minecraft aficionado; however, unlike most of the millions of players of this hugely popular video game, he doesn’t play it on a screen.
That’s because my husband and I have restricted his access to digital media with a new protocol “until further notice”: No video games. No tablet or smartphone use and just one weekly movie watched on a television screen with parents. “We are giving your brain a rest and a chance to grow new connections,” I tell him earnestly (as he shoots me the stink eye). I realize this approach may sound draconian: With an age span of almost 20 years between my eldest and youngest children, I sometimes feel like Rip Van Winkle awakening from an exceptionally long sleep to discover an irrevocably altered childhood landscape.
But necessity being the mother of invention, our son has crafted his own Minecraft workaround based largely on the Minecraft fan fiction he’s found in the library and the fleeting references he’s picked up from other kids on the school bus. He’s spending hours each day making costumes and props out of cardboard — shields, swords, pickaxes and food supplies to fill up his “hunger bar.”
I love watching the way he finds novel uses for materials, such as the translucent colored cubes I’d placed on a lightbox in my old preschool classroom (and which I’d lovingly stockpiled for years despite never seeing a single kid gravitate to them for more than a couple minutes). Now, those blocks have found a happier second life as priceless gemstones, to be traded with “villagers” (our family dogs) in exchange for even better loot. Outdoors, our son’s play is even more creative: He repurposes lawn furniture and fallen tree limbs for a defensive shelter and mines for “ore” (rocks) in the hard dirt. He has a Minecraft torch and a Minecraft potion jar (swirling with water and glitter glue) to keep enemies at bay.
Admiring this hive of activity, I am convinced that our child’s personalized, live-action version of the video game reflects a deeper sort of play than the digital version precisely because he has created this imaginary world for himself — and himself only. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are my son’s own words, which he shared with his teacher in a journal entry:
I’m not playing the video game anymore because my mom doesn’t allow it, but I have my own version of the VR game. I feel like I am in Minecraft all the time because I pretend that I am in Minecraft. I build tools and weapons and platforms and more and more stuff, from cardboard and sticks and blocks and some clay and dirt. I add more and more stuff like armor and boxes. I paint them so much, and one of them is a Minecraft cake which I painted with white, brown, and red dots. It’s like white frosting, chocolate cake and strawberries on it. In my room, I play “creative mode.” But when I’m playing outside, I pretend I’m in survival mode and I fight zombies, creepers, and skeletons. I pretend they are chasing me and fighting me and one time I brought my creeper stuffie outside with me. I sometimes get upset with my parents that I can’t play the video game but I can see that I get really cranky (when I’m on the iPad) and I really like playing in real life. It’s actually kind of scarier and more real when I play in real life. My next adventure will be attacking a squid.
Kind of scarier and more real when I play in real life. What a concept!
Cultivation of children’s natural creativity takes effort, however, and we can’t expect every child who’s spent daily life sitting upright in a classroom chair or slouched over a screen to wake up and spontaneously exclaim, “Give me an empty cardboard box so I can turn it into an elephant sanctuary!” To draw out those creative impulses, we have to make meaningful changes to the entire “habitat” of childhood, a habitat which has in my view been badly encroached by all kinds of malignant adult forces, not the least an inability to think like a child.
What does thinking like a child actually look like? Ask a 5-year-old to name 20 different uses for a fork and you will get a very different answer than if you posed the same question to your boss. Part of the discrepancy comes from our greater knowledge and experience compared to children: We adults actually know what a fork can and can’t do (twirl spaghetti vs. catapult a Lego to Mars).
But another reason for the child’s fantastical, imaginative answers is because young children are in some ways more creative thinkers than adults. Cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik discovered in her laboratory that a group of preschoolers could outperform undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley in a task designed to test their problem-solving abilities with an unfamiliar machine (the preschoolers figured out that different combinations of shapes caused the machine to light up and play music while the adult students relied on a more straightforward, but faulty, strategy of testing individual shapes one at a time).
Heightened creativity in young children shouldn’t surprise us because one of the driving engines of child development — play — encourages flexible, imaginative, out-of-the-box thinking. As educator Nancy Carlsson-Paige, co-founder of Defending the Early Years (DEY), explains in a marvelous digital media guide for parents, play is a cultural universal that has served human development well for many thousands of years, helping children to make meaning, test hypotheses, think symbolically, build relationships, express ideas, and work through difficult feelings and experiences.
There is no recorded society — even in times of social upheaval and collective trauma — where young children didn’t play, and one of the very few societies to actively discourage play (the Baining people of Papua New Guinea) has never succeeded in fully suppressing it. It’s easy to imagine, therefore, that reducing this essential fuel for learning will interfere with the development of creativity. And in fact, there is compelling evidence that a decline in creativity is already happening.
As educational scholar and creativity researcher Kyung Hee Kim has discovered, K-12 children’s performance on the most reliable measure of creativity — the Torrance test — has declined more than a full standard deviation in a generation (i.e. 85 percent of today’s children are less creative than their 1980s counterparts) and the most striking decline occurred in the youngest children. Kim found declines specifically in children’s emotional and linguistic expression, imagination, humor, unconventionality and in their ability to connect seemingly disparate concepts.
In her 2016 book on the topic, titled “The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation,” Kim refers to a “creativity crisis” in American culture and she attributes it to the usual suspects: Childhoods with insufficient free play and unstructured time coupled with a proliferation of standardized tests and increasingly narrow academic goals. Given that young children learn about the world through deep human attachments and physical exploration, it’s hard to imagine that heavy exposure to smartphones in the toddler and preschool years hasn’t also played a significant role.
What can be done to arrest the decline in creativity in a nation that has long been prized for its innovation, not its test scores?
One of the biggest barriers to solving the creativity crisis is a mistaken belief that some children are simply born creative, while others are not. This assumption lets adults off the hook for their responsibility to cultivate the conditions — such as adequate time and space to play — that draw out all children’s creative instincts.
I once visited a pre-K classroom in New Haven, Conn., where extraordinary feats of block-building were an integral part of the school culture. Every child was encouraged to view themself as a builder, and the classroom featured images of interesting architectural features and the prior years’ class constructions (neatly organized in a binder for frequent viewing). In this classroom, the teachers didn’t claim that they just didn’t happen to have any builders “this year” or that girls will only go kicking and screaming to the block corner. The children arrived on the first day of preschool to discover that block-building was highly valued in their community and therefore they began to value it, too. They were viewed as capable architects with interesting ideas to express through their constructions. It’s not a surprise, then, that these children built with such unusual creativity and passion.
Adults who are worried about healthy development often focus their anxiety on the cognitive or academic impact of children’s increasingly sedentary, structured and screen-based lifestyles. We worry, for example, about how the decline in so-called “big-body” outdoor play negatively impacts gross motor development, which in turn impedes the development of the small muscles in the hand and finger bones needed for writing, keyboarding and drawing. We worry about other impacts, which make teaching and learning difficult, too: signs of inattention and impulsivity, difficulty with abstraction or perspective-taking or peer relationships.
But the intrapersonal consequences of play’s erosion matter a lot, too. A child’s ability to cope with boredom, to self-soothe, to think flexibly, to imagine alternative possibilities and to become a protagonist in their own story — to think creatively, in short — these too are critically important life skills, and everything we know about human evolution suggests that this deep knowledge of, and comfort with, the self comes from active engagement with reality rather than from ersatz experiences, no matter how “realistic” they might appear to be.
Parents can do more to cultivate free play and provide alternatives to screen time such as open-ended materials that have multiple purposes (blocks are the gold standard). They can enforce scheduled media breaks (for the whole family!) and recognize that boredom is often a friend to the imagination and need not be viewed as a problem to solve. They can better adapt to their child’s pacing and stamina, too, allowing for more downtime in the evenings or on weekends.
But individual action only goes so far in solving large, complicated problems. Just as recycling has limited utility when products come in wasteful packaging and there is no place left to send our garbage, even the most well-meaning individuals can’t repair the childhood habitat without major changes at a systemic level.
Concerned educators have to push even harder than they are already doing not only to defend sound educational practices but to defy baseless ones that have arisen from ignorance. Lawmakers and police departments must better protect parents who want to safely give their children greater autonomy. Community-based organizations and businesses need to build stronger alliances to protect spaces and times for children to be playful, free of adult meddling and expectation, even when this action pushes up against deeply held norms (about risk assessment, for example, or the push-down of organized team sports to younger and younger ages).
Above all, we need to prove to our children that we truly value their play — like the teachers in the block-building classroom — so that each new generation can grow into the creative adults who will solve problems we can’t yet imagine.