Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Are Kids More Creative Than Adults, or Where Do Ideas Come From?

I recently read a quote that someone posted associating creativity with childhood, implying that children are more creative than adults and that to sustain that creativity, you have to be in touch with that part of you that's a child. I think this is only partially true. Playing and being inventive in play comes naturally to children, not simply because they're children, but because they're people.

Play is encouraged in young children, but after they reach a certain age, they're meant to abandon play, outside of organized games. All kids draw, but there's an age, around eight or nine, when those with a talent for it are recognized, and those who don't have the same aptitude are discouraged. Drawings young children make aren't judged, or at least, they're judged considerably less. Drawing is considered a function of being a kid. But when they get older judgement seeps in, when they're introduced to the mystery of what is a good drawing, versus what is a bad drawing, when there are "artists" and "non-artists" kids that can and kids that can't.

The assumption is that children need to play, that play is critical, but that when they grow older, it's no longer necessary, and that an integral part of growing up is abandoning the part of your imagination that allows you to be inventive. To pretend. But an ability to be inventive has nothing to do with anything childlike. If anything, our potential to be inventive, to engage in imaginative play increases as we grow intellectually.  So maturity is the reason why people have greater ability to write and draw and make things--it's not only skill, but our capacity that increases as we grow older. It's not so much being in touch with your inner child, but  an ability to subvert the part of society that says you can't. Of course some people are more encouraged than others, but being discouraged from play is an integral part of adulthood, and there are acceptable and unacceptable forms of play even for the "artists", the people who are supposed to be good at it.

 It's in  the years between the age of eight or nine, to the time when we become teenagers, when we're first told that we can't, or that we're not good enough, or that it's not practical. We're discouraged so much, that for most adults, the act of picking up a pencil and drawing a picture is so foreign, that it simply doesn't occur to them to try. The last time they did it for the sake of it, they were too young to remember. But it's not about being a kid. It has nothing to do with being a kid. It's about what society tells us we can, and can't be. Everyone has ideas, but there's a mechanism in most people's heads that stops an idea before it has a chance to happen, that compares that idea to every other idea they've encountered and measures it to be worthy or not, usually with the assumption that it couldn't possibly be. It's an act so unconscious, that people often think they don't have any ideas, when it's only that they've been conditioned not to allow themselves to have them.

Then there's that question that's so common its become a joke, that so many artists are asked,"where do you get your ideas?"  The assumption is that it's an impossible question, that some people have ideas and some people don't, and that's just the way things are, but I don't think it's quite that simple. What I think people are really asking is, "Where are my ideas? Why is it so easy for you, and not for me?" which is actually a pretty good question. I  don't know that there's a rational answer, but at least part of the answer is that somewhere, someone in your life said, "you can't."So how can you change that? Play. Play anyway and anywhere you can. You might be a little rusty, but you'll get better if you practice, and even better when you no longer have to try, when it becomes what it always should have been--simply a function of being a person. 


  1. As an illustrator involved in the sciences, I often see the parallel there too: space, dinosaurs, experiments involving eggs or baking soda, all get relegated to kiddie stuff.

    "We're discouraged so much, that for most adults, the act of picking up a pencil and drawing a picture is so foreign, that it simply doesn't occur to them to try."

    Its fascinating to me that two disciplines involving creativity that children naturally love get dismissed as impractical as people grow older.

  2. Science is absolutely about play! But adults are usually only allowed to play if it's for a practical purpose. Adults can have "hobbies" but even these tend to be organized rather than free-form, a very specific discipline or activity. Free-form play is what adult society lacks.

  3. Superb, thank you for this article. I am not a visual artist, I don't draw, but I'm interested in education and I too find the assumption that kids are 'naturally more creative' difficult to accept. I think people need to probe more deeply into this, and recognise, as you do, that creativity is human, not linked to a particular age, or even to particular fields.