Recently, my husband and I held a toy-making workshop with recycled materials in a primary school. While everything the kids made was brilliant, we both couldn’t help but notice that the lower primary students attempted wilder and more imaginative creations than the upper primary group.

The younger students were also more persistent in making seemingly impossible toys hold together — whatever it took.

Interestingly, our casual observations align with research conducted 50 years ago by George Land.

In a study of 1,600 children between 4 and 5 years of age, he discovered that 98 percent fell into the highly creative range. In a TED Talk, he related that his research team was so astonished by those results that they decided to retest the same children in five-year increments.

However, by the time the children were 10 years old, shockingly only 30 percent fell in to that same creative genius category — and that dropped to 12 percent at 15. In separate studies of adults, only two percent were considered highly creative.

According to Land, what leads to such a drastic drop in creativity is that we are taught to simultaneously employ two distinct mental functions — divergent and convergent thinking.

First, divergent thinking which is open and creative Land likens to an accelerator, while convergent thinking is all about evaluating and judging, and acts as a break. When we do both at the same time, the effect is pretty much the same as if we were driving a car — the power of the brain is notably diminished.

More opportunities to operate in an expansive thinking mode as children grow may help them retain more of their innate creativity. Along with reducing the tendency as adults to put the brakes on young people’s ideas, there are active ways we can help their creativity flourish

Contemplating space opens the portal to creative thinking

Researchers, led by Tel Aviv University School of Psychological Sciences professor Nira Liberman, have recently indicated that contemplating the cosmos — and other distant objects and concepts — promotes expansive thought that leads to creativity. On the other hand, thinking about common, everyday objects does little to encourage that expansiveness.

The study of 55 6- to 9-year-olds involved two groups of children who were shown an identical collection of photographs but in the opposite order.

The first half view photographs of objects that started with common nearby objects like a pencil on their desk and progressed to more distant ones such as our galaxy, while the second group saw them in reverse from far to near.

Several creativity tests were given to the children following their viewing of the photographs. Results showed a significant difference between the two groups.

The youngsters who had seen the photos become progressively more expansive and distant scored much higher on all the tests than the children who’d seen them contractively that is going from distant to close to home.

"Thinking ‘outwards’ rather than ‘inwards’ allows children to consider different points of view and think beyond their 'here and now' reality," says Dr. Liberman. "Spatial distance, as opposed to spatial proximity, was clearly shown to enhance creative performance."

One interpretation is that the photographs in the study served as a tool to get children to tap into the divergent thinking process referred to by Land. Brainstorming is another activity that promotes divergent thinking as long as no filtering takes place during the process.

Creating space for creativity

A friend who was a preschool teacher for over 30 years once commented how she was floored by the number of early childhood educators she encountered who never wanted students to get dirty or make a mess.

While it’s understandable that keeping order in the classroom is a priority especially for large groups, an overemphasis of tidiness and neatness especially at that age is unlikely to foster creativity.

Once children leave preschool, there’s less time and space for creativity in most schools. A designated area for creativity can help keep the classroom organized while providing a safe space where kids can let down their hair and explore new ideas.

Along with physical space, having time and mental space is necessary for creativity to flourish. Filling up children’s schedules so they never feel bored isn’t in their best interest because that empty space allows for imagination. In an article, Melissa Bernstein explains that while boredom is panic-inducing for many parents, it’s the best thing a child can face, as it gets their creative juices flowing.

Similarly, not having everything at ones fingertips, already made and solved allows for a new creative solutions. Limitations or constraints can help trigger creativity — so let students struggle a bit to work out problems.

In our toy-making workshop, we elected not to bring a hot-glue gun which would have conveniently solved many attachment issues. There was a drill and cutter with an adult to make holes and cuts where children indicated, however many found other ways to put pieces together.

Promoting curiosity fuels creative problem solving

Encouraging students to develop the practice of asking a lot of questions on the outset of a project or theme can also help them foster creative problem solving skills. Research has linked creativity to curiosity — most recently to divergent curiosity which is associated with the drive to explore new and unfamiliar areas.

In a study of 122 undergraduate college students, researchers found those with high divergent curiosity scores in personality tests far more likely to come up with creative solutions to problems. The students’ early- and late-stage creative problem-solving processes, number of ideas generated, and quality and originality of their ideas were all taken into consideration in the study.

"Creativity to a degree is a trainable skill," explains the study’s lead author, Jay Hardy, assistant professor in Oregon State University's College of Business. "It is a skill that is developed and can be improved. The more of it you do, the better you will get at it."