Donald A. Cadogan, Ph.D.
I am sometimes asked if there is a negative effect on children when they are involved in too many school and peer activities. The concern of some parents in this situation is that their children would have no time to just sit and think and, thus, wouldn't allow their creative potential to develop. The apprehension here, however, would have little validity if we were talking about childhood involvement in the playful game and fun activities of youth. Of course, by definition, too much of anything is bad. But psychologists generally agree that creativity springs largely from ideas and activities that are rooted in free childhood play. To be creative we need to both conceive of and have access to new ideas. But to do this we need to be open to our novel concepts and to enjoy the process of conjuring them. We need to be capable of spontaneously allowing playfully creative thoughts to rise freely from the unconscious and flow into conscious thought. The experience of play in childhood appears essential to the development of our capacity for creative imagery. And the fact that we are permitted and even encouraged to play appears vital to this process.
Many other qualities develop from childhood games, such as feelings of mastery, competence, belonging, teamwork, and other interpersonal skills. All of these add to our sense of confidence and self-esteem as adults. The time we spend playing as children is, therefore, important to our overall personality development.
Many childhood play tasks are structured through the use of strict game rules and guidelines such as in baseball, chess, etc. Other activities such as drawing or story telling are much less structured to allow for the free expression and exploration of inner experiences. The former seems related to establishing personal competence and skill; the latter appears more directly associated with the development of creativity.
It is important to note, however, parents can become overly involved with this process and push their children to unhealthy limits. In these instances, children are pressed so vigorously to play and to interact with other children that they come to resent it and rebel. In other cases, children with low self-esteem sometimes prod themselves to engage in every school and peer activity available in order to feel accepted. Sometimes they work themselves to the point of exhaustion. In these cases, the reasons for their poor self-assessment need to be identified and addressed. But these are the extremes. Most children can benefit from frequent, even intense inclusion in play activities, provided, of course, that they enjoy such involvement and allow time for other important, though possibly less enjoyable, learning activities such as homework.
There are other aspects of this process that need to be considered if we are to allow creativity to develop fully. Experiments have shown that when children are rewarded for experiences they already find desirable, the basic enjoyment of these activities diminishes. For example, if a girl likes to read, but a zealous parent gives her money for every book she reads in order to motivate her to read more, her natural enjoyment of reading may actually decrease. She may begin reading primarily for the money. When the parent stops paying her she may read less and might even stop completely. We can encourage our children by showing approval for all activities that will aid their development (reading for example), but not use monetary reward when they already find the activity inherently desirable. Praising someone for his or her behavior in a nonjudgmental way does motivate and seems to enhance the natural enjoyment of that behavior. In other words, we can tell little Mary we are happy that she enjoys reading. If she already likes it, however, we wouldn't want to pay her for it.
Along these lines, it is vital to be aware that childhood play is one activity that is intrinsically rewarding. That is, children play because they enjoy it. But we can actually interfere with their enjoyment by judging or criticizing the products of their play. For example, Little Johnny begins to draw with his crayon. We could say something like "Boy you look like you're having fun, that's great”, and, “Look at this nice picture." This would be along the lines of nonjudgmental praise. Frequently, however, we tell them to "Do it this way and not like that", or "That picture is not as good as this one”, followed by, “Try and do better tomorrow." Such comments are corrective and can help our children improve or perform in more skillful and culturally correct ways. But these statements can also stifle free expression by indicating that only certain acts are good. If we want ready access to creative ideas, it is best to accept the notion that all ideas are good and the more ideas the better. In fact, these are the actual suggestions used in experiments designed to enhance creativity.
Tragically, many parents don't accept creative behavior in their children, preferring Instead behavior that is more like other children. And many teachers don't want creative children in their classrooms. Such children prefer to do things their own way and can be seen as disobedient. But remember, creativity is a natural outgrowth of childhood play. If we don't interfere with the process it can develop on its own. But if we judge and criticize their creative efforts - If we tell them that some ideas are good and others are foolish - we may encourage socially appropriate behavior, but we may also hamper the development of this wonderful, but delicate trait.