Creative children are the inventors and visionaries of the future. Scientists with artistic hobbies, for example, are much more likely to win a Nobel Prize than their peers. In this interview, Elizabeth Rood, Vice President of Education Strategy at the San Francisco Bay Area Discovery Museum, will share insights on how to raise creative children and suggests different ways parents can create their own discovery environments at home.
Full Interview Transcript
Kelly: I’m so excited to be here because the Bay Area Discovery Museum is one of my favorite places to take my own children. Thank you so much for being here.
Elizabeth: Thank you for having an opportunity for us to chat. It’s great.
Kelly: What exactly are people discovering here at the Discovery Museum?
Elizabeth: Well, as an educational institution, our mission matters to us a lot. What we promise to do to the community, for the community, through our mission is to take research and to transform it into practice so that it ignites kids’ creative problem solving. What we were seeking to do is to make sure that kids are building those fundamental creativity skills but are applying them to problems, and figuring out, when you encounter something that you know what to do with, how do you come up with solutions that are going to be new and different.
Kelly: You focus so much on creativity. Why is that the most important thing?
Elizabeth: People talk a lot about 21st century skills. It’s part of what we want to be building in kids. It’s no longer enough to just know your reading, your writing, and your arithmetic.
But instead, we really need to be promoting sort of what educators call habits of mind. It’s the things that we have to be trained in like, “I am curious. That’s a habit of mind.” That is built naturally, but it is deepen through our experience. By having that becomes something that we just automatically go to. It’s like “Uh-uh, I wonder about this thing.”
Those kinds of habits of mind are really important in the 21st century. One that stands out among all of them though is creativity. We know this because of the way that our economy is changing so rapidly. We are in a place where anything that can be done by computers for our kids is going to be. Economists predict that four-, five-, or six-year olds, the majority of jobs that they will face as adults are jobs that don’t currently exist.
How do you best prepare kids from the earliest age to be able to be successful across their life? It’s to tap into their creativity and to figure out how it is that they see innovative solutions to things that are other people maybe don’t understand how to approach or see things in that way.
Kelly: Is it really important to really start building that early? I mean do you start from birth doing that?
Elizabeth: What we see in young people is that they’re actually naturally very creative. You can see with your three or four-year-old just the richness of their imagination. It comes to us very easily when we’re young. As we grow, it’s actually something that can be squashed out of us if we’re not really, really intentional about the social environment, about the educational environment.
In fact, what we see is that right around the fourth grade, the majority of kids have a dramatic drop in their creative thinking skills. The way that we can basically inoculate kids against this drop is to be making sure that the kind of imaginative spirit that we see naturally in our threes and fours is really encouraged and fostered as they move from those preschool years in to the early elementary years, that we’re giving them lots of experience that promotes their creative thinking skills, and shows them that creativity is not just a more joyful way to approach learning, but it also something that helps them see solutions that maybe other people aren’t going to see. There’s enormous power and excitement in that for kids.
Kelly: It is it really all about the environment the parent is providing and what they’re exposing them to that really makes them be more creative or some children just naturally are more creative?
Elizabeth: The Atlantic ran a whole series about this about a year ago, but there was really time that it sort of creative outliers, creative genius. We see in that a message that often gets sent, which is that these are people that are exceptional.
But the reality is that everybody has creative potential. What we want to be doing is providing kids the experience to really optimize their creative potential. Not everyone is going to be a Michelangelo or John Lennon, but every kid has the potential to really be flexible in their thinking, to know what to do when they encounter challenges, and to sort of not be stuck in seeing shoes from only one angle but to have the ability to really imagine things in an out of the box kind of way.
What we know most importantly is that, yes, experience is what allows that to happen. In fact, this is a kind of fun fact, but research shows that your political leanings are more likely to be wired in to your DNA than whether or not you become creative.
Kelly: Oh, really?
Elizabeth: What that says to us is that experiences really matter. I mean like anything in development. There may be a band of how creative or not one might be, sort of like intelligence. Having really rich experience is not going to necessarily make me a genius, but the experiences that I have will shape my intelligence, and they will also shape my creativity. Yes, those early experiences really do matter for the creative potential that kids tap into.
Kelly: What can parents be doing at an early age to instill creativity in their children?
Elizabeth: I think a lot of it is giving ourselves permission to not be worried so much. We spend a lot of time worrying about our kids and how they’re going to be. Unfortunately, what that leads to is a stepping in probably more than we need to.
I think creating space for kids to really direct their own experience, which is why the museum is such a wonderful place because kids get to arrive here and make decisions about where they’re going to go and what they’re going to do. That kind of opportunity is really important for young children to develop what psychologists call executive functions skills. Those executive function skills are really connected to kids’ creativity. The opportunity for kids to self-direct their experience is important.
I think another piece is that a lot of times when we see our kids struggling with things, our instinct as parents is we want to step in and help them. Maybe they don’t know how to tear the tape. We step in and do that for them.
Elizabeth: It’s not infrequent that we’ll have visitors come to the museum and say, “What are the directions for what we were supposed to do with this?” Part of what we’re trying to do is reframe the conversation to say, “We have materials out. We have some easy steps to get you started.” But really, it’s okay for kids to take it wherever they’re going to take it. There’s no right, one, and end outcome that we want to be driving toward.
I think that for us adults, this is really different than the way that many of us were educated, to think that what we’re supposed to be doing in any educational setting is to be putting forward what’s the one right thing, what’s the wrong and right answer, and helping the parents reframe to understand that that actually is leading kids to not sort of tap into their creative potential, instead, if we can offer experiences where there’s many ways to approach it and there are many possible end outcomes. We want to encourage kids to be their individual selves and to really think as creatively as they can.
Kelly: You had mentioned earlier that it can be squashed out – and I agonize about my kids’ preschool – which is the right philosophy. You want them to be creative and keep learning. How is it squashed out? Is it through the school that you choose? Is it things that you do?
Elizabeth: Yes, I think psychologists have wondered why it is right around fourth grade that this happens. The emerging theory is that it’s lining up with early adolescence. That’s the time when kids star to really become much more self-conscious.
Who they are and how they fit in to a social structure suddenly becomes very important. They’re looking to their peers, they’re looking to their teachers, and they’re looking to their parents to get permission for, “To what it extent is it okay for me to be different?” or “Where do I have to be the same?” That’s a very complex thing to be able to navigate.
In an educational setting, unfortunately, a lot of times partly just because of the way we as adults were taught ourselves, we again, are replicating this idea that what matters most is getting the answer that the teacher wants or the answer that the parent wants. If we can step back and think, “Is this the time when that one right answer really matters? Or can we open it up more?” That’s really going to send the message to kids that they don’t have to be replicating somebody else’s idea. That’s what I would want all of us to be thinking about.
It’s simple things like when we’re doing math. Rather than asking what’s five plus five, ask, “What are the different ways we can get to the number 10?” There are an infinite number of answers. We’re still tapping in to the same math learning underneath it, but it’s not a parroting back of a thought. There’s a lot more creativity in that. It also creates more opportunity for kids for wherever they are in their learning to have that to be a challenging question.
Kelly: Do the parents play more of an influence in kind of the way that they interact with their children or is it just the school that they go to, like the preschool, sort of has more of an influence in that kind of thing?
Elizabeth: I would say for the preschool age of kids, there are pieces of it that are being shaped through the adults that are around them. Again, of three or four-year-old, is not yet at a place developmentally where their sense of self versus the community is yet fully developed. It really starts to happen as kids move to five and to six. They start recognizing that what they think and what they feel about things is not the same as what everybody else thinks and feels. It really is starting on those early elementary years, where it matters most.
But what I would say, it’s both. It’s both the way that parents respond and it’s also the way that teachers frame things. I think we need to be working out at both on an educational level and in a family level.
Kelly: Is there anything that you would say about school that you think you should look for? I mean do you, certain philosophies or things that you should look for when you’re looking at a school?
Elizabeth: At the museum, we have a preschool onsite. It’s a project-based preschool curriculum. It’s called an emergent curriculum, which means that they follow the interest of the kids, and they build the curriculum from that.
I think there’s a lot of beauty and wealth in something like that, but I don’t think that it’s a one size fits all approach. I mean part of what education is you got to find the right thing that fits your family and fits your kids. I will say that I think that wherever there are opportunities for learning to go deep rather than trying to learn lots and lots of things. That’s why we’ve think the project-based learning is such a really important part. It’s that depth.
I think the other thing is that it’s really important for educators, for schools, and for teachers to be promoting what’s called a growth mindset. That is really important for academics, but it’s also really important for creativity. This understanding that we get better, we get smarter, we get more creative, or trying.
This is, I would say, if there’s a single thing to be looking for in a school, it’s the extent to which the school is fostering kids’ growth mindset, their willingness to take on risks, to try things that they haven’t done before, and to be okay with not doing it well the very first time. How does this school respond when kids have little failures? How do they support them through that and help them see that those are opportunities for learning and growth?
Kelly: I love coming here with my kids. I feel like they’ve spent hours here. I’m just overwhelmed with so many different things to do. A lot of times, they want to come back and do the same thing each time.
Is it better to have variety? You were saying directing, so I’m thinking about myself like, “Oh, we should try something else.” But just let them do the same thing every time? How do you speak to something like that?
Elizabeth: I’d say it’s balance. I mean I think if kids are engaged in something over and over again, we as adults get bored much more quickly than our kids do.
Kelly: I think it’s more about me, yes.
Elizabeth: I think that it’s important to remember that if they’re coming back to something, it’s probably because there’s still something that they’re figuring out about whatever it is the activity is it they’re doing. At the same time, kids will love what they love. If we don’t expose them to novel things, then they’re not going to have an opportunity also to really tap into that creative potential because it is through a novelty and through sort of flexibility that we are building their creativity skills as well.
When we’re doing work with parents, we talk about something called guided play. It’s this idea that your kid is going to make decisions about what happens in the sort of more micro level but at a more macro level. It’s okay as adults that we’re sort of creating a path. Of course, part of that part is just choosing to come to the museum. That’s how we’re guiding their play, is by giving them a space that is really wonderfully enriching.
But I think it’s also fine to have a conversation with their kid on the way to the museum to say, “I think today we should try something different that we haven’t done before.” Let’s go to the new place first, and then second, they will come back to the place that you love so much. In that way, we’re just broadening their horizons. We’re also acknowledging that they probably still love their beloved thing, and that’s okay too.
Kelly: I’m also curious too. I mean this space, we just love it, but not everyone has access to something like this. How do you create your own learning and discovery environment in your own home for the children?
Elizabeth: Yes. Well, I hope that everyone who is close by does feel like they have access to our museum. We’ve made a lot of efforts to make sure that the museum is not just for those who have the financial means to be able to pay. We have a lot of access programs that allow families to come in who are not able financially to pay the full admission.
That being said, I think at home or just even in your park, the local park or your local library, it’s about finding the kinds of activities that kids are intrinsically motivated to do and are excited to do, but maybe thinking about how to approach them with just a little twist. One thing that we have done at the museum is we’ve built an online resource called Creativity Catapult, which has a hundred activities, maybe more, probably hundreds of activities that are ones that families can do at home or the educators can do in afterschool programs, in camps, or even in classrooms. These are activities that tap into kids’ creative potential. These are things that we’re trying to do to make sure that a broad of group of the community has access to the kind of programming that we deliver.
Kelly: Do you have an example of something that they can do, just an activity that anyone can do at home?
Elizabeth: Sure, yes. One of my favorite ones that are going to be coming in to the Catapult database, coming up soon is a technology scavenger hunt. It is trying to help parents and kids to understand technology, not just as screens or TVs, but understanding technology is all things that people have designed and made to be able to make life better.
Part of the scavenger hunt is looking around your classroom or your home and finding things that didn’t exist 50 years ago, finding things that didn’t exist t 10 years ago, finding things that we think maybe aren’t going to exist in another 10 years. It’s a flip on a sort of a typical activity of scavenger hunt but trying to add in a little bit more educational value and also from the creative stand point, helping people to see technology in a different light.
Kelly: I have a question for technology. You’ve been open for 25 years, I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of changes with all the technology. What’s your stance on technology and kids? There are so much people talking that you shouldn’t expose, too young. I’m curious on your views on that.
Elizabeth: It’s a controversial topic.
Elizabeth: I think that people often land on it in very ideological ways that are not actually backed by the research. What we’re trying to do is to really help people understand what the research backing is on technology and education. We know that what matters most for babies and toddlers is interaction. One thing that we worry about is the way that screens are becoming a replacement for social interaction.
We have all had moments as moms where we need to unload the dishwasher, and a PBS show seems like the perfectly good thing to be doing so that we can get something down. But just as we would never give our kid a book and say, “You do this. I’m going to be over here,” we know from research that the most effective use of technology is when we’re doing it together. Whether that is watching a show together or playing a game together, those are the places where we need to be building in better technology.
What I mean really is digital media that creates opportunities for interaction between the adults and children, because right now, most of the products that are on the market really are meant to be pseudo baby sitters. What we really want to be doing is creating things that invite parent and child interaction because that’s what the research shows matters most. It’s not that technology is by itself bad. It’s the impact of it when it winds up replacing that social interaction.
There has been some really interesting research done in the last couple of years on preschools that are very, very intentionally integrating technology and doing so in a way that actually is very positive for kids. But the way that they do is that it is also in addition to and with support of adults right there, side by side. That flies in the face of what many people assume. It’s not as easy as of a don’t or a do. It’s about the intentionality, it’s about the amount of the time, and it’s about the way that we want it to be promoting more interaction.
Elizabeth: It’s not of the digital media by itself is bad. That if it is used in moderation and there is good intentional adult watching of what’s happening and using it as prompts further conversation or for learning together, then that actually can really beneficial to kids learning.
That being said, any of us who have young own children know that it is like candy. They want it in a way that maybe they don’t want other things. Monitoring it and restricting the amount of time is critical, especially for young children.
At the museum here, we don’t have a lot of digital media. We don’t have screens around. We don’t do exhibits that have a lot of interactive digital media in that way. We do have a high-tech maker space that has iPads and more kids are doing design. But part of what we’re trying to do in that, again, is to change the dialogue a bit about technology and show what a model is of when kids can use technology, not as passive consumers, but instead, as active users of technology to be able to create.
It’s a very different thing when you’re using an iPad to create a design and then that gets printed out on a laser cutter, and then you build it. That’s a very different use of technology than a game or an app that is sort of gamifying something that doesn’t really to be gamified. It’s just sort of using the wow factor of the screen to get kids’ and parents’ attention. Yes, I think it is about stepping back and really being clear about what our goals and why are we introducing a technological element and making sure that it’s never happening at the expense of the social interaction.
Kelly: Is there anything that you recommend to promote the creativity instead of you want to get something done, but your child wants you. Is there anything you can have them do instead of giving them a phone that would that would allow them to get something done?
Elizabeth: Sure. Certainly giving just good old-fashioned paper and art supplies is a terrific thing. One thing that I love to do with my own kids is giving them kitchen tools and saying, “Can you take this apart and put it back together?”, thinking about asking kids for help with the activities.
One of the things that’s really surprising sometimes to people is that kids who develop stronger, what we call prosocial skills, that’s the willingness to help and be cooperative, actually do better in school and do better in life over the long term. Having the kids help you unload the dishwasher is actually building those prosocial skills. I think it’s also remembering that sometimes, it takes more work to involve your kid in the activity that you need to do, but there’s a significant payoff also in what they are gaining with doing that with you.
Kelly: Where can people go for more information about the Bay Area Discovery Museum?
Elizabeth: Definitely visit our website. Come see us here live. But on our website, bayareadiscoverymuseum.org, there’s also a link to our online creativity database and activities. That’s creativitycatapult.org.
Kelly: Great. Well, thank you so much for coming.
Elizabeth: Thank you. Thanks for spreading the word. We’ve got a pretty special thing here.
Kelly: You do. You really do. I’m lucky to be here in Bay Area.
About Elizabeth Rood
Elizabeth comes with more than 15 years of experience in formal education, working as a teacher, principal, and executive director in small urban schools focused on personalization, equity, and progressive education. She holds a B.A. from Brown University, teaching and administrative credentials from Mills College, and a Doctorate in educational leadership from Mills College. Her doctoral research, drawing heavily from psychological constructs (such as learning mindset, self-efficacy, and stereotype threat) focuses on the role of “care” in teachers’ relationships with Latino male students entering high school substantially behind in academic skills. For more information visit, www.BayAreaDiscoveryMuseum.org.