Why Kids Are Creative, and How They Lose It As Adults

Yesterday, during a corporate seminar, I drew a black dot on a flip chart.  I asked the group, “What did I just draw?”

Black dot

“A dot,” they said.

“Anything else?” I asked.

“A black dot.”

Over the years, I’ve probably done that exercise 300 times.  With any group of adults, I always get the same answer: “It’s a dot.”

But a few times, I’ve had a chance to do the same thing with a group of early elementary school kids.  When I ask what I drew, they’ve never once said it was a dot:

  • “It’s a squashed bug with no legs.”
  • “It’s a ball.”
  • “It’s the top of a telephone pole.”
  • “It’s a hole in a golf course.”
  • “It’s a black moon in a white sky.”

As soon as someone asks, “What is it?” their minds go into high gear, thinking of all the possibilities.  But ask an adult the same question and they always say, “It’s a dot.”

So, what happens between childhood and adulthood that causes creativity to disappear?

I’d love to know your thoughts.  I’ve got one idea:

Black dotA little kid scribbles something on paper with a crayon.  A well-meaning adult comes along and says, “What is it?”

The child thinks, “What do you mean, ‘What is it?’”  They know exactly what it is.  “It’s a bird,” they reply.

The well-meaning adult says, “Here – let me show you an easy way to draw that so it really looks like a bird.”

We think we’re helping.  But what the child hears is, “You can’t do this.  Only adults can do this.  You’re really not creative.”

Over time, when that happens repeatedly, they begin to believe it.  Little-by-little, they lose their sense of wonder.

I’m sure there are other reasons.  I’m no expert, but I’ve learned to respond differently when my kids give me a picture they’ve drawn.

Instead of saying, “What is it?” I’ve learned to say, “Tell me about it.” 

The results are pretty amazing.  They feel like their creativity has been reinforced, because they become even more creative in their storytelling as they describe the scene in detail.

I wonder what would happen if we did that with each other as adults?  Instead of critiquing each other’s perspective, what if we said, “Tell me about it.”

Just a few of my random thoughts, no firm answers or suggestions.  Care to join the discussion?  We’d all love to hear your perspective – just “tell us about it.”

(Comment below)

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  • jdudeck

    Are those kids really more creative? As adults we have simply already been through the process years ago, and have determined that calling it a dot is the best answer, no need to think about it. In other words if you want creativity from adults, you have to ask a different question.

    • Interesting, John. We probably have settled in on our “best answers” over the years. I wonder if what was a “best” answer at one point in life doesn’t need to be revisited as life moves forward . . . ?

      You said, “you have to ask a different question.” Got an example of what that might be?

      Love the insights – thanks for pondering and sharing!

      • jdudeck

        It could just be in how you pose the question, for example saying that you are looking for other things beyond the obvious “dot”. Or to not even bother to ask what the dot is, but to go to things that are challenging, like, eg. ways to present the claims of Christ to the postmodern generation.

        As to whether we need to revisit the answers that we gave in the past, yes of course, especially for the important stuff. That is what “new wine in old wineskins” is about. So many churches are still preaching the sermons of 50 years ago, and need to start over from time to time, take the New Testament, and figure out how it applies to the people living in the neighborhood next door.

        • “It was good enough for Spurgeon, it’s good enough for me . . . ” Sad commentary, but true what you say about 50-year old sermons. They’re not invalidated, just need to be made relevant. We don’t replace wineskins because they’re old; we replace them because they’re brittle, and will tear when new wine starts rumbling around inside them . . .

  • Patrick Yun

    Never gave this one thought but your advice is really making me think twice about things.

    • It’s just a thought – I think it’s always good to challenge the things I do routinely . . . even if they don’t seem to be causing problems. Trying to explore the “If it ain’t broke, break it” idea . . .

  • Tyler Hoad

    I ask, “Why?” quite a bit. But generally I’m so tired of being told my opinion is stupid that I’m suspicious of anyone who wants to know. I like have good discussions but it seems like people only want to change my mind instead of knowing what I think and why I think it. I am comfortable with differing opinions. I’m not sure I know what would happen if I asked people to “tell me about it…” more. Perhaps I’ll do just that and report back.

    • I’d love to hear what happens if you take that approach! (Isn’t it true, though, that most people would prefer to change our thinking than to just understand it?)

  • Kathy Collard Miller

    Great idea. “Tell me about it!” Now if I can just remember that in the moment! Thanks, Mike!