Building Tomorrow’s Creators: Lessons from Play

By Niko Varella, Teacher

Bing Nursery School teachers were among the more than 1,200 attendees of the 2015 Innovative Learning Conference, which focused on the theme “Tipping Points in Education.” The biannual conference organized by The Nueva School was held in October at Nueva’s Hillsborough campus. Attendees heard from experts and leaders in the fields of education policy, engineering, neuroscience and more on how the way people learn and teach in the coming decades will likely be defined by the choices made in education today.

Of particular interest to me were two presentations relating to fostering creativity. Schools across the United States struggle to inspire students to enjoy learning and delve into creative thinking without fear because these qualities are essential to become self-motivated, confident learners. At Bing, with our play-based curriculum, we do our best to indulge children in their creative and inventive natures, a practice that neuroscience research has shown allows children the capacity to learn and create more.

At the conference, Elizabeth Rood, vice president of education strategy of the Bay Area Discovery Museum and director of the Center for Childhood Creativity, spoke about the imperative of creativity. She said she believes that “creativity is dramatically, vastly underdeveloped in our children,” essentially robbing them of “the skills that they need to solve all the biggest problems around us.” In an increasingly complex world, those without the ability to be creative, said Rood, will be hampered in their ability to arrive at solutions. “Creativity is not just about the arts,” she said. “It is the imaginative capacity to conjure up what does not currently exist.”

Without a way to stimulate and promote creative thinking in education now, not only the children will suffer. That’s because economies and societies thrive on creativity, said Rood. In fact, she said, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s predictions, when current young elementary school children enter the workforce, 65 percent of the economy will be made up of new types of jobs that do not currently exist. “So as things are rapidly evolving and shifting and changing, we need to prepare our children for a very different way of thinking.” 

Rood noted that encouraging creativity is challenging, and teachers witness its decline as children grow older. The phenomenon known as the fourth grade slump, a marked decline in original thinking in children around age 9, has plagued educators for some time. Rood suggested that this phenomenon is a consequence of the constant state of attention that is demanded of students and the lack of time dedicated to allowing them to explore their interests or calm their minds.

Rood cited a study by Charles Limb, musician and associate professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins University, who recently looked at the effect of musical improvisation on the brain. By comparing two sets of fMRI scans done to a person while they play music, Limb was able to identify the separate regions of the brain involved when the participant would play a memorized piece as opposed to improvising. During improv, the default-mode network, or as Rood prefers to call it, the daydream network, would activate. It is this region of the brain that is engaged less often than it should be in school, she said. “When we go to the [daydream] network we get told that we are off-task and acting badly,” said Rood. “What do you do then? What do you do to get kids to go to [this] network?” The fundamental answer is that children need downtime, to relax and to be in a place where they can foster a creative flow. “They need to play and they need to do unstructured activities. They need to follow their own lead.”

With encouraging learning and creativity in mind, Kyle Shaffer, head of the new KIPP Excelencia Community Prep public charter elementary school in Redwood City, presented on the idea of shaping a school around the needs of the children and students. To accomplish this, Shaffer spent more than a year designing a new school, from transitional kindergarten to eighth grade, after studying schools around the country. The KIPP charter school that he oversees was founded on fostering three perspectives: those of the family, the children and the teachers. By ensuring that all three have a say in the decisions of the school, Shaffer hopes to shape a community-endorsed climate that everyone involved is excited about. 

Shaffer recounted an experience from his teaching career involving a 15-year-old boy who was unable to do double digit addition. After having been held back for two years yet continuing to struggle, Shaffer told him that all he wanted to see from him was effort. After the boy practiced and practiced, and Shaffer helped and encouraged him throughout, he was able to convey to his student that he truly cared about the effort he was putting in. “I still remember, right now, him looking up at me,” Shaffer said. “He said it with his eyes: ‘Oh my gosh, this guy means what he says. All he cares about is effort.’” Just a handful of years later that same student graduated high school and attended college. As Shaffer puts it, it is “our responsibility as adults and a society to create a system where all kids truly have access to education.” 

Here at Bing we love to see our children learn and grow. We see the value in including families and connecting with parents and caretakers. Edith Dowley, Bing’s founding director, fostered the principle that each child at our school was to be treated as an honored guest, given the gift of time and freedom of movement. Children enter a place to be welcomed and accepted, to explore their own interests and be empowered. We foster what is known as the competence model of teaching, wherein children are seen as competent and able, respected and treated as such. Bing was founded on the philosophy of giving children the time and resources to explore the world around them, where we as teachers act as guides, giving them our timely support. We believe in investing in the future through educating our children today, inspiring new innovative ways of thinking and encouraging them to develop originality and creativity. “A school is not the name on a building,” Shaffer stated from experience. “A school is the people. A school is the adults inside and what they believe about kids, and what we’re doing for kids.”