“Joy in learning… must mature to joy in doing, or it will be short-lived.”
(Robert Backman, “Education: Molding Character”)
Creativity is Endangered
According to standardized tests, Americans, on average, are becoming more intelligent with each generation. And while this should be cause for great celebration, it is not; prestigious universities and companies have a plethora of high-scoring, intelligent applicants to choose from, but these organizations are desperately looking for something more valuable to innovation that is becoming increasingly difficult to find: creativity and character.
While intelligence scores are going up with each generation, creativity scores are going down. “Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. ‘It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,’ Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is ‘most serious.’” (source)
So… what happened?
I know, it’s getting old— the persistent narrative that screen time is the source of all childhood problems and, consequently, mom guilt trips. In reality, watching television has been a normal activity for American families since the 1950s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that screen time dramatically increased, partly due to the invention of the internet and more gaming options. The amount of time children spend glued to a screen has risen dramatically in the last 20 years; from a daily 3 hours in 1995 to an average of 6 1/2 hours today, according to the market research firm Childwise. (source)
In one study, researchers found that for school-age children 1-2 hours of screen time per day was a good balance. Any less actually put children at a disadvantage growing up in a predominantly digital world, while more than 7 hours a week was detrimental to development and well-being (source). According to Harvard Medical School, an increase in screen time is linked to a variety of negative effects, including a decrease in creativity (source).
Screen time is not the only activity sucking away children’s time; homework has also increased since the 1980’s. Many national studies show kids are doing more homework than ever before, mostly in the elementary school age range. Research at the University of Michigan shows the amount has more than doubled. In 1981, students ages six to eight did about 52 minutes of homework a week. That increased to 128 minutes in 1997! (source)
It all boils down to one thing: children have been left with little time to think and act for themselves, and the consequences are higher rates of anxiety and depression, and lower levels of creativity, confidence, and happiness. Screen time, homework, and other modern-day activities are quickly absorbing precious time that is essential to developing valuable skills, like creativity. So how can policy makers, educators, and parents nurture these endangered skills? It is as simple as turning off the television, throwing away busywork, and giving children the freedom to play.
“In contrast to the institutions of the world, which teach us to know something, the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to become something.”
Dallin H Oaks, “The Challenge to Become”
The Challenge to Become
Unfortunately, as higher-education has become more competitive, the effects have trickled down to secondary and primary education in the form of standardized tests, grades, and longer school days. We’ve lost sight of the true purpose of education–to become someone.
In every educational institution, from public schools to private schools to homeschool, we obsess over cramming children’s minds full of information, and testing them to ensure that information is retained. We plan and design new curriculum, we create reward systems to motivate, we add childish illustrations and vocabulary to spark their interest, yet we’ve seen very little improvement in academic achievement. Perhaps in our obsession to standardize education, and in our rush to cover vast amounts of material, we are not allowing children to slow down enough to form relationships with the subjects we cover. They are gaining information about math, science, and history, but they are not becoming mathematicians, scientists, and historians.
Reading a book and then asking our child to narrate is an important part of education, but we shouldn’t stop there. Allowing children the time and opportunities to apply knowledge in meaningful ways will not only turn information into knowledge, but will help children become educated men and women.
Formal lessons provide living ideas, nourishment for the heart and mind, but are only one part of education. Narrating, asking questions, and discussing ideas solidifies knowledge and identifies the ideas your child wants to explore further. However, a living education is not complete without real-life experiences– opportunities to apply knowledge.
Play and Projects
One of my favorite memories from childhood was playing with my friend, Cheyenne. We created tiny houses for toy animals inside a box and used toy furniture and food to furnish it. If we didn’t have the item we needed, we made it with clay or other materials. We’d play for hours making these tiny worlds, but the most enjoyable part was setting it up and deciding how to create the items we needed.
A few years later, I became fascinated with real animals, particularly horses. Both my parents longed to live in the country, and my obsession was a perfect reason to make the leap to farm life. Soon after moving to the farm, I noticed that there was a dire need for a veterinarian; sickness, pregnancy, birth, and orphaned animals. I set up a clinic, checked out books from our local library, and learned by observation. I even set up an appointment with the local vet to interview.
I learned a lot of information about animals during that time, but the reason it is still with me today is because I applied the information and gained first-hand experience. The project was self-motivated, self-directed, and self-managed. Although the knowledge I gained about animals was beneficial, the most important part of that experience was the skills I developed.
My childhood was certainly unique–not every family has means or opportunity to buy a farm, homeschool, and allow their children to roam free. However, the principle of applying knowledge is relevant to all families and all educational settings, no matter where you live or your income level.
While speaking with parents and looking through curriculum used in schools and home, I’ve noticed many adults struggle with how to apply this principle. Maybe it’s because society has focused so much on the input of facts, not the output of knowledge. It may also be that we are a society obsessed with control. I see this in the educational materials commonly used in most educational institutions: textbooks saturated with learning objectives, worksheets, answer keys, multiple choice tests and grades. We want to control how and what our children learn because it is easier to quantify, easier to check off boxes. The consequence is a shallow education and unmotivated children.
Compelled in All Things
One of the most pernicious and damaging beliefs in education is that adults must choose the assignments and projects that children engage in. Otherwise, children would never progress because they lack the desire to excel and the ability to choose meaningful work. We give them busywork and meaningless projects along with grading rubrics to assess their work. What we’re really doing is creating slothful servants; a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even Heavenly Father understands the importance of giving His children agency to choose their activities; “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.” And if that weren’t clear enough, He continues by saying “Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;” (D&C 58:26-27)
By allowing children ample time each day to engage in activities of their choice (with limited screen time), they are learning to be wise servants of their time and talents.
Many people (including myself) may interpret the scriptures and even Charlotte Mason to mean that we must always be engaged in good things; filling our days with lessons, activities, and service. One pernicious comment I’ve heard often is that homeschooling is detrimental to a child’s development because they might be bored at home! Little do they know that science actually proves the opposite: boredom is absolutely essential to a person’s well-being.
As I’ve studied various resources I’ve learned that rest is a vital part of physical and mental health; and in order to actually learn, we need time to ruminate on knowledge.
In the scriptures the Lord tells us quite often to “ponder” and “meditate” and “rest.” (3 Nephi 17:3; 1 Timothy 4:15; D&C 9:8; D&C 76:19). In her book, Bored and Brilliant, Manoush Zomorodi explains exactly what goes through the brain when it is given a break from stimulation and has time to ponder on ideas and feelings:
“When our minds wander, we activate something called the “default mode,” the mental place where we solve problems and generate our best ideas, and engage in what’s known as “autobiographical planning,” which is how we make sense of our world and our lives and set future goals. The default mode is also involved in how we try to understand and empathize with other people, and make moral judgments.”
And Jodi Musoff, an educational specialist at the Child Mind Institute says that “Boredom also helps children develop planning strategies, problem-solving skills, flexibility and organizational skills – key abilities that children whose lives are usually highly structured may lack.”
It can be difficult to allow children time to be bored and space to organize their own projects, especially when we didn’t experience that method of education ourselves. We are products of our society, and to change requires a paradigm shift. And that shift is as simple as setting aside afternoons for play and self-directed projects.
“That the claims of the schoolroom should not be allowed to encroach on the child’s right to long hours daily for exercise and investigation.” (Home Education, p. 177)
Charlotte Mason (as well as current professionals) recommend that children are given a few hours a day to play and be bored. Not surprisingly, current research in the fields of education and child development show that play and project-based learning positively contribute to educating the whole person – intellectual, spiritual, social, and emotional. School lessons pour information into a child and they learn something; play and projects require a child to act on their knowledge and become someone.
Afternoons are a frequently underestimated and overlooked part of Charlotte Mason education. Of afternoon time she said, “Five of the thirteen waking hours should be at the disposal of the children; three, at least, of these, from 2:00-5:00, for example, should be spent out of doors in all but very bad weather. This is an opportunity for out-of-door work, collecting wild flowers, describing walks and views, etc. Brisk work and ample leisure and freedom should be the rule of the Home School.”
Afternoons are a time when children:
- become bored and have opportunities to ponder and ruminate on ideas.
- work out ideas and feelings through independent play.
- practice skills and engage in projects.
- learn social skills by playing with, or working on projects, with friends.
Now that you have a basic idea of why it’s so important for children to be self-directed learners, I’ll explain in detail each way that children are actively engaged in learning at different stages of development–through play, projects, and record-keeping in future articles.