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Teaching Your Kids: Creativity Needs Room to Play

So far, we've talked about ways to encourage creativity in your child. In this lesson, we'll talk about how to make sure you're not squelching that creativity. And consider this example...

One day, a nine-year-old boy named James was in the kitchen with his aunt, who was sitting at the table having a cup of tea. Well, while auntie was having her tea, James was standing at the stove watching the tea kettle boil. And he was just fascinated with it. He was watching the jet of steam coming out of the kettle, and he took a spoon and held it up into the jet of steam and watched as little drops of water condensed on the spoon and started to trickle down and drip into a cup he put there just to catch the drops. And he just kept watching this cycle go over and over and over again, just fascinated with it.

Well, eventually, his aunt got frustrated with him and she kind of barked at him, "James, go read a book, do your homework, ride your bike. Aren't you ashamed of yourself for wasting your time like this?"

Well, fortunately, young James was undaunted by her admonition. And two decades later, at the age of 29, and in the year 1765, James Watt re-invented the steam engine, ushing in the Industrial Revolution that we, of course, all benefit from today. And all based on the fascination with steam that he developed at the age of 9 in the kitchen.

So, as parents today, what can we learn from this story? Well, I'll start with this observation by the former Secretary of Education, William Bennett. He said, "The opposite of work is not leisure or play or having fun, but idleness—not investing ourselves in anything." Be careful not to discourage play. Discourage idleness. And for the record, watching TV is usually not play.

I'd also suggest this lesson extends past childhood years to our productive working lives. Think about the barriers that keep people from being more creative at work.

Sometimes getting your employees to be more creative isn't the problem. The problem is getting their less-than-imaginative boss to give them the space to invent. Right? Innovation isn't a linear process. Inventors need the freedom to play with ideas to see what fruit they will bear.

So, a well-meaning boss might think he's doing his job by keeping his team focused on the most productive areas to explore. But when you insist on knowing what the fruit will be before allowing the play, some of the most revolutionary discoveries might stay undiscovered. What they're doing might seem like play, just like it did to James Watt's aunt. But it could start a revolution.

Okay, if you decide to share this story with your kids, here are some questions to get you started.

  1. What do you think would have happened if James Watt's aunt had kept him from ever playing with the tea kettle?

  2. Have you ever created anything interesting after just playing around with something?

  3. When do you think you're most creative? In the morning? At night? When you're bored? When you're super busy?

  4. When are some times when it's important to be serious and not play?

Okay, in the next four lessons, we'll turn our attention to Curiosity and Learning.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith