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Free Play

Leave room for creativity to bloom

Teresa Amabile, a Baker Foundation Professor at Harvard Business School and the author of Growing Up Creative and The Progress Principle, talked to us about how to foster creativity. Here are a few highlights: 

If you ask people whether or not creativity is important, they’ll say it is. So why does it seem like society prioritizes it for young kids and not for teenagers? 

People often think of creativity in a narrow way, that it’s only about the arts. When children are young, parents will encourage them to try different kinds of arts and crafts. But adults tend to extinguish creativity as kids become preteens and teenagers. Part of the problem is that our school systems prioritize the mastery of certain bodies of material, so teachers are forced to focus narrowly on those tasks. 

All of that is necessary, to some extent, because creativity requires knowledge and skill. But what gets stifled is the fire behind creativity—and that’s intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is wanting to do something because it’s interesting, enjoyable, satisfying, or personally challenging in some way. It feels important or fun. That excitement can get wiped out of young people because they’re so focused on performance to a defined standard rather than continuing to explore the verbal world, the artistic world, and the natural world, as younger children naturally do. 

What puts a damper on creativity?

Things like expecting a harsh evaluation of your work can dampen creativity. Feeling that you’re being watched while you’re working. Feeling that you’re competing with other people. Working for reward—feeling that you’re doing something to get money or a grade—can decrease intrinsic interest in doing something. And this is the most surprising finding from our research—simply thinking about being evaluated, wanting to get rich by doing something, wanting to do better than everybody else, or wondering what other people will think of what you’re doing—all of that, just thinking about it, can undermine creativity, at least temporarily.

How do parents and teachers encourage creativity? Because it sounds like anything we do might make kids feel like they’re being watched or evaluated.  

Lesson number one is to get out of the way. Back off and give kids free rein to explore something they’re interested in, as long as it’s safe. It’s important to encourage them to try an interest without the expectation that they have to excel in it.

For example, I think a lot of teens express creativity when making videos for social media— doing little skits, dressing up in funny costumes and making people laugh, or doing dance routines that they’ve choreographed. Many parents are nervous about this, and rightfully so, because these social media platforms have many downsides. But rather than shut it down, I think that parents can find out how their kids are engaging with these things and encourage the exploration that is an outlet for creativity. Teachers can also find a way to engage this kind of energy in school projects. Instead of assigning just a written term paper, some teachers allow students to create a video—say, where they’re demonstrating a science concept—and embed that link in the paper. 

Another thing you can do is travel with kids. Exposing kids to different cultures can stimulate their creativity, sometimes in surprising ways. When my daughter Christene was young, I couldn’t afford to take her on trips. So I would invite to our home people from different places or people who had traveled abroad and could tell us about it. We spent a lot of time with a grad student from China I worked with, who showed us one day how to make the most marvelous dumplings. Christene got interested in China after that, and I think it broadened her mind in a way that stimulated her creativity. 

What do you think parents and teachers get wrong about creativity? 

They think creativity applies only to music and art. And that’s so limiting. Every aspect of human activity is an arena where creativity can be shown. 

I teach in a business school, and I’ll ask my students, “Where do you want creativity the most in a company?” They’ll say things like research and development or marketing. Then I’ll ask, “Where do you not want creativity in a company?” And they’ll say, “Accounting.” This gets a big laugh because no one wants creative accounting in the sense of illegality. However, there have been great—and legal—innovations in accounting that have vastly improved the way corporations operate. I have a colleague who has made two major innovations in that field in his career. Creativity is possible everywhere—even in accounting!

And think about sports—like the moves that players can do in basketball now. If you compare the way the game is played today with how it was played 30 years ago, there are so many different things players are doing now that just weren’t done. Somebody innovated those moves.

You can notice creativity in so many places. Teenagers can be creative in how they support each other, thinking of little things to do for friends. In the way they entertain one another, making each other laugh. They find playful ways of doing things that might lead to something useful when they’re grown up.