W&M professor wants to make the world better through child’s play

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A professor of educational psychology at William & Mary is concerned about a recent decline in creativity among American children, which can be detrimental to a child’s well-being, she says. (file photo)

Children need to play and burn off energy. That’s what recess is all about.

But as a College of William & Mary professor knows, children also need active play time every day to foster their creative sides and develop into productive, successful adults.

That’s why she’s concerned about a recent decline in creativity among American children, which can be detrimental to a child’s well-being.

Dr. KH Kim, a professor of educational psychology at William & Mary, first shed light on the subject in 2010 in a study entitled “The Creativity Crisis,” which was featured in Newsweek. Kim found the shift toward standardized testing and an overreliance on technology to be factors in the decrease of children’s creativity, particularly for children in elementary school.

Earlier this year, Kim published a book based on her research, “The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation.” The book examines how creativity is viewed and encouraged (or discouraged) in different environments and cultures, what happens when children are encouraged to be more creative and how parents and educators can nurture children’s creative attitudes and creative thinking skills to achieve innovation.

“I want to change the minds of parents and teachers for our children,” Kim said. “When children are playfully exposed to different experiences, whether it’s seeing a painting, reading a book, attending a concert, or exploring nature, this sparks their curiosity. If you can make learning fun and not put too much focus on academics, especially in the formative years, children will develop interests and become more creative.”

KHKim, creativity expert
Professor KH Kim wants to foster creativity and innovation by encouraging children to play. (Photo courtesy KH Kim)

Kim grew up in South Korea and was the first female in her village to attend both high school and college. She knows first-hand what a school system that only emphasizes academics and high test scores can be like. She taught English in her native country for a decade and later developed interests in studying parent education as well as Nobel Prize winners.

“I just read so much, and I found that high intelligence and memorization skills are not necessary to be a Nobel Prize winner,” she said. “But what is necessary is creativity. I define creativity as making something unique and useful that can benefit the world.”

Kim relocated to the United States in 2000. She was a professor at Eastern Michigan University and the University of Georgia before arriving at William & Mary in 2008. She’s spent nearly 30 years studying and researching creativity and innovation, which she says have been on the decline in America since 1990.

“Children do not go outside to play anymore, and that is a problem,” Kim said. “Watching TV also hinders creativity development.”

Kim encourages active play—outdoor activities, storytelling, puzzles, board games, imaginative games and make-believe such as playing house—as opposed to passive play such as excessively using technology, particularly playing video or computer games.

“However, using technology to create something is worthwhile,” she said. “There are so many ways to actively play with technology to create something unique and useful. The idea is to make it playful. Having a playful attitude, approaching situations in exploratory ways, and seeing the lighter side of challenges, is one of the characteristics of the greatest innovators.”

Based on her extensive research, children must experience four climates, which Kim identifies in her book as soil, sun, storm and space.

In the soil climate, children need to be exposed to as many resources and experiences as possible.

“They need to see everything,” she said. “They need to be exposed to different people, perspectives, cultures, food, subjects, hobbies and collaborate with people of diverse backgrounds.”

In the sun climate, children should have role models they aspire to be like.

“By giving them a warm, encouraging environment, parents support their children in wanting to be like their role model or inspiration,” said Kim.

In the storm climate, parents set high expectations for their children and give them honest feedback while allowing them to make mistakes.

“Children learn by making mistakes and failing, but parents today don’t give their children the opportunity to fail, or play outside and fall down,” she said.

Finally, in the space climate, children need time to be alone and the freedom to be unique.

“They need time,” she said. “Time to be alone, to reflect, and time to think. They also need the freedom to come up with different ideas and different answers, and not fill in the bubble with one right answer on a test. Non-conforming views and perspectives are necessary for creative thinking.”

Out-of-the-box thinking is how children become who they are and change the world, Kim added.

“They need all of these four climates to achieve innovation,” she said. “We can reverse the creativity crisis. We don’t want children to just be robots filling in the right bubbles on tests. We want them to have their own subjects of interests, preferences or curiosities. We want them to explore their passions and have fun building their expertise in the subjects. That will help a lot of people and will make the world a better place.”