A recent study about Lego play and creativity has received a lot of publicity, reporting the finding that playing with Legos may make children less creative.
Although the focus of the study was economic research, the authors maintain that it has broader implications for educational policy makers and educational reform.
What does an economic study of undergraduate and graduate students interacting with Legos as part of course credit tell us about the long-term effects of Lego play on young children’s development?
Mindsets Can Be Trained and Activated
The study focused on the idea of “recently activated mindsets,” or the idea that tasks a person is currently engaged in effect not only how they approach subsequent tasks, but also which future tasks they choose to take on. The concept is important in economics for two reasons. One has to do with workplace culture.
The authors conclude that their results “indicate that an employee consistently engaged in routine work would produce less creative ideas than those who are not so engaged.”
The second implication for business is the importance of designing a shopping experience so that people are primed to buy a particular item. For instance, if you wanted to sell sewing patterns, you would organize store shelves and your online site differently than if you wanted people to peruse beautiful hanks of yarn and dream of creative ways to use them.
To better understand how mindsets are activated, the study’s authors asked adults to perform one of two tasks – either build a Lego kit with a pre-determined outcome and directions or build anything they chose from an equal number of Legos. Afterwards, the participants took one test to measure creativity and another to measure logical thinking. Both groups performed equally well on the test with clearly defined right and wrong answers, but the adults who were asked to create their own Lego structure performed better on the test of creative, divergent thinking.
The authors refined the study to determine whether a pre-determined right answer or step-by-step directions impeded creativity. Some participants were given a picture of what they were expected to build but no directions as to how to do it, while others were given step-by-step directions but no picture of the end product. Participants with the picture reported less enjoyment of the activity and also performed less well on the immediately following creativity test. The authors conclude that a pre-determined “one right answer” is a greater impediment to creativity than following directions. However, it is possible that the participants’ frustration with having to get to a single right answer without clear instructions as to how to do so caused their poor performance on the follow-up task.
The final twist the researchers gave to their study was to allow participants to choose an activity after having a particular mindset activated. Participants were given the tests first – either one that rewarded single, right answers or one that encouraged divergent thinking. Participants were then invited to play with Legos, and given a choice of the kit with step-by-step directions or a pile of Legos with which they could build whatever they wanted. Participants tended to choose the task they were primed for. That is, participants given a well-defined problem chose to work on the Lego kit while participants given an ill-defined problem chose just to play with the pile of Legos.
Creativity is In Decline
There is no question that creativity has declined in American schools. Dr. Kyung Hee Kim of The College of William and Mary surveyed kindergarten through adult norming samples of the Torrence Test of Creative Thinking from 1966 to 2008.
Creativity generally increases until the middle school years and then levels or declines into adulthood.
Exceptions to this trend are creative tasks that require sophisticated language skills or executive brain functioning, which increase in adulthood.
The cause for concern lies in the fact that the Dr. Kim’s survey found significant decreases in creativity in the last 40 years. Across almost all age groups, scores increased from the initial devising of the test through the 1980s and then began a steady decline in the 1990s to their current levels. The largest decline has been with the youngest participants, as children from kindergarten through third grade have shown the largest decrease in creative thinking. Kim notes that “over the last 20 years, children have become less emotionally expressive … less talkative and verbally expressive … less imaginative, less unconventional … less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things … and less likely to see things from a different angle.”
But Intelligence in Increasing
At the same time that creativity has declined, intelligence has shown a steady increase. Scores on the Stanford-Binet and Wechsler tests and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) have increased since the 1990s, showing that the decline in creativity is not connected to an overall decline in intelligence or in the quality of teaching.
It is entirely logical to speculate about what changed in society and or the education system in the 1990s to bring about a decline in creativity at the same time other markers of intelligence and achievement have increased. One possibility is the increase in standardized testing and accountability, which leads inevitably to teaching to the test and emphasizing the “one, right answer.”
As the Lego study shows, mindsets, once activated for convergent thinking, are difficult to switch for more creative thinking. Another possibility is the explosion of personal technology, which may hinder face to face interaction and children’s development of language and interpersonal skills.
Free Play Makes Children Think Creatively
Dr. Kim suggests giving children more free play time. Creativity requires the ability to imagine new possibilities. If children are always told what to do and how to do it, there is no space to imagine anything new. She specifies that unstructured free play time means time away from electronic distractions.
Dr. Kim also advocates more “problem finding” – both on their own and in collaboration with adults and peers. The authors of the Lego study call this an ill-defined problem, or being able to come up with your own questions, goals and means of getting there. Children do this when they explore the world around them, build with blocks or create pretend worlds and games.
The Lego creativity study raises important questions about how children are taught and whether consistently engaging in tasks with goals and directions clearly defined by someone else hampers creative thinking. However, because the study was performed with adults and did not measure the cumulative effects of engaging in such tasks over a long period of time, more studies are necessary before making conclusions about Lego play and children’s development.
In the meantime, parents should make time for children to engage in play that encourages creative imagining as well as activities that require step by step logical processing.