the creativity crisis & indie culture

According to Newsweek, there is a creativity crisis happening in the United States. Children’s creativity scores (much like an IQ score) are dropping – fast.

Children sit for hours in front of the television. Their minds are filled with facts by rote instead of through problem solving. “It’s left to the luck of the draw who becomes creative: there’s no concerted effort to nurture the creativity of all children,” says Po Bronson, the article’s author. Kids aren’t learning to be creative – their lives are routines, with a correct way to do this and a wrong way to do that.

Ugh. Sometimes, I feel like I’m a huge part of the problem. Toy Story has been on loop in our house for a week. Am I feeding Lola’s creativity? And, if I’m feeding mine, can I regurgitate it like a mother bird and feed it to my offspring?

Sometimes, I wonder if I really have the tools to nurture creativity in my old child.

rules exist for a reason…

During a brief bit of retail therapy with Megan last night – which ended in therapy, but no real retail – I explained the many “kid stuff” rules that I have. No synthetic fibers, no flame resistant pjs, as little plastic as possible, no glitter, etc… But there is one rule I hold higher, more sacred than any other: no Disney princesses.

Trust me, this has to do with the creativity crisis. Read on.

I have no problem with Disney. No real problem with princesses, either. My problem is the subculture around needing to OWN a fairytale. You see, when I was little, I didn’t need a logo or an official princess costume to pretend that I was my favorite character. I threw on my mother’s old dress and a necklace and I went on pretending to be royalty.

Pretending. The ultimate creative process.

In my mom’s old dress, there was no wrong way to be Sleeping Beauty or Belle or Jasmine. But when you mold something out of plastic & slap a logo on it, there is suddenly a right way & a wrong way. There’s “official” and then there’s “homemade.” There is one that is preferred and one that is less-than. There is no need to create imaginary worlds or to create new stories around the problem of your dress being pink instead of blue. You can OWN the story, you can do it the “right way.”

Hence my rule. There will be no right way to do anything in my house save what WORKS.

Especially, playing princess. Or airplanes as the case might be …

finding what works is half the battle…

Ultimately, finding the way that WORKS for you – whether for a fairy tea party or for a huge business proposal – is the very definition of creativity. “To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas in the best result),” says Bronson. Creativity is about considering problems, coming up with a vast amount solutions, and then using those potential solutions to create a new, original, ultimate solution.

To me, this is what indie culture is all about (you thought I forgot about that part of the title, didn’t you?!). Indie culture is about finding what works for you. It’s about embracing the fact that no mere logo or stamp of officialness makes a product or idea better than another. It’s about finding cultural stimulation outside the status quo that we are supposed to enjoy.

Indie culture is about pretending that the world is full of possibilities. And acting on every single one that just might work. Or determining for yourself what combination of solutions works best – for you – right now.

Indie culture has embraced the handmade and DIY movement because it works. It invites the creative spirit into our lives and reminds us of all sorts of alternatives to what the world would have us think of as reality.

And practically speaking, handmade & DIY works because it’s individuals coming up with crazy good, totally new solutions to old problems. Such as, what can I wear to a party that no one else will be wearing? Or how can I make my neighbors jealous of my patio furniture?

Of course, its the same reason why so many of us – hand in the air! – embrace brands like Apple or Google. Innovative solutions to problems we didn’t know we had. Gadgets that make you feel more creative & empower you to realize your potential.

but back to the kids…

Great toys – whether handmade or manufactured – help kids pretend. Great toys help kids express emotions, explore new situations, and experience the world as other people. Great toys do not allow them to act out preset actions depicted on a television or video game.

In my opinion, handmade toys do a great job of this. So does art. So do sweet little science kits. And of course, books – let’s not forget about books. These are some solutions to the creativity crisis in America.

Indie culture provides a paradigm for experiencing these joys of childhood – whether you’re 2 or 62.

The beginning of addressing this creativity crisis is to understand that we are all children who just want to pretend. We all want to find out the best way to do things for ourselves. Do your own thing. Find out what works for you – embrace others who do the same – create even better solutions.

Exercise your own independent creativity for the sake of yourself & your children.

The problems we face now, and in the future, simply demand that we do more than just hope for inspiration to strike.
— Po Bronson

{wooden dinosaur toys by littlealouette}
{wood car toys by littlesaplingtoys}

32 thoughts on “the creativity crisis & indie culture

  1. Hmmmm this brings up SUCH an interesting point in my mind: how conspicuous consumerism not only makes things ‘wrong’ & ‘right’, but also sucks away our choices, squashes our creativity, and, of course, promotes conformity. How frustrating! Not only does buying from big box stores support things I don’t necessarily want to support financially…but it also has all these other not-so-positive repercussions that we don’t even realize (even those of us, like me, who have considered consumerism a lot).

    Viva handmade! Seriously!

  2. Yes, I was right, this is a really great article, Tara! Giving a name to the problems that we have imposed on this generation of children makes it all the more real in my mind now. I’m not even THAT close to having kids yet, but I think about this frequently. How do we, as parents and friends and aunts and uncles, ensure that our children are nurtured creatively. Most schools don’t come close to providing a creative environment. Maybe at least in kindergarten, where I remember building things out of huge cardboard “bricks” and drawing all the time and playing pretend. I don’t even know if that’s what kindergarten is like these days. I hope so!

    Great writing, and I’m glad that a publication like Newsweek took this up, too. The more people who are made to realize this problem, the closer we can come to a solution.


    1. hey brittany! yes, i think this is a huge problem whether you have kids or not. and really, i don’t even think it has to do with kids all that much. when i was working at my big box bookstore, my creativity was sucked completely out of me by the same forces on culture that are at work on kids.

      it took 6 months of SERIOUS reinvention to reverse that. and i’m really only now getting back to my peak.

      thanks for reading!

  3. Wonderful post, Tara! Reading Bronson’s book, “What Should I Do With My Life”—a collection of stories about people getting away from the idea of what they “should” be doing and on to doing what will actually bring them satisfaction in life—was a huge help to me in stepping away from a FT job and into an indie career, so I always stand up and take notice when his name is mentioned. (whew! I tend towards run-on sentences)

    I love your no Disney princesses rule, as well, and that’s one I already had in mind for my own offspring, whenever they’re in the picture. We need to pass on our creativity to our kids, and the absolute best way to do that is to help them find themselves by teaching them that there is no “right” way to do things, no “should”, and that it is OK to find their own way, just as we have done.

    1. amen, liz! this is the main reason my husband stills struggles with my career – even if i make more money than he does. there’s an assumption that i should feel guilty for doing what i love because he was taught that there is a way you SHOULD work (not fun…) and then there’s everything else.

      hmmm… actually, that might be a good jumping off point for another post i’ve been pondering but didn’t know how to start!

      1. You’ll be fighting that feeling with him for years to come. I do what I love and my husband still struggles with it after 11 (soon to be 12) years of marriage.

        The sad thing is that there are *a lot* of people who feel the same way. It’s very rare to come across someone who was brought up with the mantra “Do what you love and it will never be work.”

  4. That Newsweek article was so large, it was hard to digest it all.

    I love what you said. It also amplifies a thought I had while reading the article – Did no one at at Newsweek consider the strong current of indie/DIY culture? I loved a lot of what the article had to say about increased understandings of creativity, but saying we have a crisis seems overblown.

    p.s. I don’t have a girl, but I love the no Disney Princess rule. Mainly b/c teaching a girl that the pinnacle of a fairy tale life is waiting around for someone else to make it great is the opposite of seeking a creative life. (And, umm…completely sexist.)

    1. i agree, elizabeth! i think i could write about 4 posts on the ideas in that article… and i just might – i’m crazy like that 😉

  5. Oh how interesting! I just wrote a blog entry on my struggles with creativity, it’s not quite related to this… crisis, but well maybe the reason I struggle is due to my own over exposure to mainstream media as an adult. I remember as a child having no problem coming up with stories and pretending. Even now as an adult in my dreams I still come up with wild crazy things. Problem is, I can’t bring up that same inspiration when I’m awake, when I actually need it.

    I don’t have children of my own but I do have a two year old niece, and I find that despite her exposure to mainstream media she is still quite creative. There needs to be a balance. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with children being exposed to that stuff, so long as they are also exposed to the rest of what you mentioned, that there is no right or wrong way, just what works for them. In my niece this is reflected by her love for princesses regardless of what they may be or look like. Her favorite “princess” is Shrek’s Fiona, in her ogre form. If Fiona is in her human form, then to my niece, it’s not right. A little different from the traditional princess. She doesn’t own any princess gowns or costume tiaras, and she doesn’t need them either! A blanket wrapped around her tiny body suffices as a dress, and a crown made out of paper that she hand colored herself is the perfect crown.

    That to me, seems to be what children need. To know the difference, and be able to still unlock their own creativity despite whatever the media or society may say.

    Sorry if this doesn’t make much sense, English isn’t my first language!

  6. I ended up being very grateful for growing up in an Eastern European country in the ’70s and early ’80s.
    Just a few TV channels to watch, a very few “western” toys available in the stores, most of the people being equally “not very wealthy” VS a lot of art, drama, music, dance, writing & sport free children classes, making your own fun & games & toys, playing outside with other children on a daily basis, free access to libraries…

    I was used not to have many toys, especially sophisticated ones – so I made my own since I was very little (first with the help of my dad and grandma), and most of the children did the same. I owned only one Barbie doll (smuggled from Italy by my grandma), but I had fun making her clothes, cardboard and wood furniture and clay pets for years.

    I realized how lucky I was after seeing today’s children in my country – the majority have an incredible amount of toys and are used to get anything they want – so they have a “consumer” relation with toys (get, use, throw away, replace with another).
    Their toys are often too sophisticated, so they leave less space for creative play and imagination. They can get tons of accessories for their basic toys, so they don’t have the need to make their own (and thus don’t nurture imagination and craft skills, etc…).

    I could play “pretend” with my grandma’s silk shawl from the early ’50s for hours. Can children today do that?
    I’m afraid, most of them don’t. They probably have a shelf full of glittery colorful “children” shawls in the toy department, a matching tiara, a matching glittery bag, etc… Leaves such a small space for imagination. Of course they’ll throw away such uninteresting toys after a few hours or days. Not challenging at all, boring, frustrating.

    All the same applies to adults.

    Ha, funny, but you can apply “less is more” even here!

    It’s most probable that I choose to be a designer because I’ve experienced the joys of creating, imagining and making my own stuff from an early age.
    The feeling was so irresistible that I wanted to experience it over and over! And I still do. (all this is much clearer to me now, than when I went to study design)

    Really, how lucky I am!

  7. As a former high school teacher, I used to get so frustrated by students’ lack of problem solving skills and believed all those standardized tests only reinforced the issue. Yet damned if they weren’t constantly finding ways to get around the school district’s internet site blockers! Lesson here- desire is strong motivator for finding solutions. (I had this reinforced when my two-year-old came to me the other day with a box of animal crackers he had retrieved from the TOP of the fridge…)

    The ability to solve problems, think outside the box, & figure things out for yourself does so much for building confidence and developing the independent, innovative thinkers and creators that every society needs. I saw too many parents when I was teaching that wanted to “do for their children” rather than enable the students to “do for themselves”. It was frustrating both as a teacher and as a member of society to see these kids going out into the world so dependent on Mommy and Daddy to solve all their problems and take care of the hard stuff. I understand the desire to smooth life’s rocky road for our kids, but we need to realize the disservice we do them by enabling this dependent behavior.
    Because of that, I find myself asking Jack (my son) open-ended questions to get him thinking and talking; I hold back when he finds himself stuck or frustrated and offer help rather than do it for him. I love to see his expression when he figures out a problem and I make sure that to reinforce how great it is that he was able to do for himself. (ok, so the day he got the animal crackers from the top of the fridge I was a bit more disconcerted than encouraged, but in general…;)
    Nurturing my son’s creativity (through books, drawing, Disney toys AND handmade wooden cars!) is so important to me for his success in life and sense of self, not to mention, it reinforces my own creativity and gives me an excuse to lighten up and “just play” now and then.
    One more thing- I think the term “creative” intimidates many people and they think the term doesn’t apply to them because they can’t draw or paint. My husband is a self-employed tool maker who has this “if it doesn’t exist, machine it” approach to doing things at work, as well at home around the house, proving that creativity isn’t limited to us “artistic folks.” Perhaps this is a rumor that we as indie/diy folks could help dispel…

    1. nicole – you are right on about the term “creative.” I actually had a quote from the article about “arts bias” as it relates to teaching creativity in schools & cutting art programs. You can cut an art program – even if you shouldn’t – and still teach creativity in EVERY other class. To my mind, this is the main reason people don’t like math – if it’s taught creatively, math is FUN and super rewarding.

      I’ve been working on this idea for awhile – but would love to hear more of your thoughts!!

  8. This topic really challenges my definition of creativity and how the media outlets that a child is exposed to can affect their creativity.
    For example, my 3 year old nephew is absolutely obsessed with Batman, but he never watches Batman on t.V., instead he owns a ton of Batman toys and when I watch him play, it’s so interesting to see the creative situations he comes up with. He plays out a story from his own mind and even though the “rules” say that Batman should win, that isn’t always the case.
    It’s as if Batman is just a tool, what he does with Batman is what makes him creative. Even with Indie toys there are rules, a car will run on wheels and if a child is rolling the car on the floor, he’s following the “rules”, but what if the car suddenly takes flight and lands on the couch?
    I don’t think the media can affect the creativity of a child, I think, like others have said, there has to be a balance. It can be a starting point to bring color and possibility, where the child takes it from there is what creates creativity.

    1. Hey Marcie! I really love your story. I certainly have no problem with characters! I loved the Disney princess movies when I was little and there are plenty of characters I love today still.

      I think the media can be a help to teaching creativity – but it certainly can be a detriment too. And there will always be children that are outliers on either side of the spectrum.

      I’m glad that the definition of creativity raised in my post & in the newsweek article made your question your definition. There’s been a lot of talk in the comments here lately (before this post) about creativity not being limited to the arts & I fully agree. I am very creative – but my creativity excelled in math, science, and culture studies. I’m a pretty terrible artist & crafter. I really plan to explore these ideas further next week!

  9. I am a fan of your blog Tara!!! no…addicted to your blog.
    I loved this article and the ideas that you bring up so that no matter where we live, the same issues applies!
    The other day, I was commenting with a friend why schools dont add arts programs like ceramic, sewing, etc!!! Everyone needs creativity in their lives right!
    Love this quote:
    “Exercise your own independent creativity for the sake of yourself & your children”.

    1. Thanks, gizecraft!

      I would love for you to read the Newsweek article – there was a great section on “arts bias” which didn’t make it into this piece. Taking creativity out of schools has little to do with cutting arts programs – or even home ec or phys ed. It really has to do with the STYLE in which kids are taught: memorize this or repeat after me. Kids who are helped to problem solve – whether in math or science or art class – are WAY better with creativity scores AND standardized tests!

  10. Oh, Tara! How funny.

    I was thinking on this just last night, and had started to work on a blog entry for this weekend about getting back to my childlike creative roots – before there was a right and wrong way to do things. Then, I come to Scoutie Girl and you were right on the same train of thought as I was! When I finally get my blog thoughts in order and post, I will make sure to link back to this post as well, since great minds think alike!

  11. A terrific, thought-provoking article. We are about to bring a new little girl into the world, and I have to admit I find this new idea of being a “princess” extremely dangerous. My sister and I were not allowed to have Barbies when we were little, and Disney Princess movies and Nintendo didn’t enter our house for a long time either. We grew up not wanting for anything, to be sure, but were also encouraged to imagine and to think out stories and games for ourselves.

    So right and so true: ‘In my mom’s old dress, there was no wrong way to be Sleeping Beauty or Belle or Jasmine. But when you mold something out of plastic & slap a logo on it, there is suddenly a right way & a wrong way. There’s “official” and then there’s “homemade.” There is one that is preferred and one that is less-than. There is no need to create imaginary worlds or to create new stories around the problem of your dress being pink instead of blue. You can OWN the story, you can do it the “right way.”’

    Thank you for this article affirming the value of nurturing creativity in our children and in ourselves. We need more of this as we and our children continue to be battered with images and values of the “right” and “wrong” ways to play and to create. Kind of makes me want to get rid of the TV altogether!

  12. Wonderful, thoughtful post, Tara!

    I read this article earlier in the week, and it’s brought up a lot of ideas for me that others have already touched on. First, the arts bias for creativity. I just transitioned in my day job from a “typically” creative position of editor to an IT business analyst. A lot of people (who don’t know me very well) scratched their heads at my shift. “IT? Really? But you’re so creative!” was a typical response to my career move, as if there’s no room for my brand of creativity in an IT environment. If that were the case, there’d be no iPhones (or the many time-sucking apps) to which we’re all so addicted! I find I constantly have to point out to people that there is more than one way to be creative.

    Second, I think a lot about what you said in a reply to a commenter above, because my fiance also thinks like your husband: “there’s an assumption that i should feel guilty for doing what i love because he was taught that there is a way you SHOULD work (not fun…) and then there’s everything else.” I would add to this the assumption that creative always = fun. It certainly can be, but when you’re in the thick of solving a really tough problem, creativity is actually really hard work. Doubly so, for me, when I can’t get the vision I see so clearly in your head to actually translate to the plushie I’m making. My hands aren’t always as skilled as my vision requires!

    So, I guess to wrap these thoughts up and bring some cohesion to my rambling, I wholeheartedly agree that there is no right or wrong way to be creative, and there’s no right or wrong way to work, creative, fun, passionately, or otherwise.

  13. Great post and follow up! I have not read the article yet, but I can get the gist from what I read here. I do think media and popular culture is less a part of the problem than education. As a former art teacher I am all too familiar with watching the creativity get driven out of children through regimental teaching. Most children in k-2 are still quite willing to get creative in the art room, but by 3rd grade it becomes more and more common to hear pleas of “but I can’t draw”. “I am not good at art” By 6th grade only a few will fully participate. By high school art is usually an elective and even then many kids in art class don’t feel they belong there. This does not exclude creative thinking in other areas, education tends to crush creative thinking across the subject board. Rant done, I am glad you are encouraging this discussion and paying attention to alternative ways of being!

  14. As a culture we generally do not value art.As an artist who has mentored youngsters I am saddened by this.Even schools with good art programs fail to exploit the real value in the arts which is this-at it’s core art is about creative problem solving.Learn this and it will help throughout life.I hope that the kids I work with have learned a little about process instead of only product.I always get a look of shock when I tell them that there is no such thing as “wrong” and that my only rule is NO ERASERS.Great post!

  15. This post spoke near and dear to my heart as a parent and toy maker. All of the things you mentioned are what inspired me to create simple, open-ended toys as they are what I want for my son. I spoke about what “open ended toys” are on my Etsy handmade portrait video and it is basically my rule of thumb when it comes to whether or not a toy or child’s product enters our home. Like you, I don’t have a problem with watching the occasional TV or Disney movie…but I draw the line at all the other branded toy clutter that comes with it. Sure, he pretends that a fish toy is Ponyo…but other times that same fish finds its way into fish soup when he is cooking. Think he’d cook up an actual Ponyo fish toy? Nope. Branded toy clutter.

    Anyway, back to the underlying point…yes, I do indeed think TV and mass-marketed branded toy clutter is partially to blame for the “creativity crisis” and schools too. Creative learning needs to be part of everything. At home and in school. There is room for creativity everywhere, in everything. What is the point of force feeding knowledge to kids if they then lack creativity to actually use it? It needs to be in everything.

    Thanks for this great post…I’m striving to incorporate creativity in the everyday with my son. Being flexible. New ways of looking at things. Allowing the space for him to problem solve even when I know the answer. When I do this I benefit also. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned and discovered and been inspired.

  16. Hi,
    This is the first time I have visited your site, and imagine my delight to find the first article I read to be all about our creativity and toys that help kids pretend! I started making my little playhouses about 14 years ago when my nieces and nephews were little and my sisters were looking for toys that would spark their imaginations. Now, as an “older” mom of a 5 year old boy and a 4 year old girl, my own kids are constantly helping me dream up new designs, and they have given me some of the best ideas! I have always encouraged imaginative play by my kids, and I LOVE handmade toys that encourage our kids to be creative.

    Thanks for such a wonderful post! I am looking forward to viewing more of your blog.


  17. I think the key is being able to invent your own game.

    Kids play with the stories that are in the culture as a starting point.

    Recently, I was creating with my campers some Native American inspired artwork. None of the kids under seven years old had heard of “Cowboys and Indians” (I live in the Bay Area, CA)

    They’ll ask did you see Star Wars?
    Do you know Pokemon?
    Do you have a dog?

    And that gives them some characters and relationships to start making up their own play.

    I was taking to a mom the other day about the tyranny of the word “bored”. That somehow a kids saying I’m “bored” sort of sets off a guilt reaction in parents.

    IMO, kids have to get a little bored to have the incentive to start inventing their own fun.

    I definitely let the kids get a little “bored” at my camp. And the result is more creativity, for sure.

    Here’s a little fun— I just ran across this because my new hobby is making little animations on and I like to see what kids are creating there too.

    Remember what fun it was to just make faces in the mirror?
    Evidently, Jim Carrey used to practice this a lot.

    Young humor…..

    This post has me thinking about a request that one of my camper’s parents made this week —- that I start blogging about things that parents can do at home with their kids to encourage their creativity.

    I have a good one that you can do when you are in the kitchen and your kids is underfoot….

  18. Great post Tara! :)
    But I will say, with authority of an experienced film editor (that is my background), and a mom, that one should not let kids watch movies, any movies, till they are at least 4 or 5 years of age. It works strange things with their minds, it literally overloads them with emotion and information. So it is not strange that they just get hooked on it: it becomes a required exposure since the real world is not en par with the amount of readily available stimuli at toddler age. When you combine that with the material that they are regularly served on TV, namely advertisements, it is not surprising that they become consumers, not creators.

    As far as the handmade toys go, the best toys are the ones kids make them selves. Whether they are masks, houses, forts, jewelry, you name it. Hence the success of Legos and big old cardboard boxes for example.

    As a mom, I love going to craft stores with my son. He comes up with an idea what he wants to make, and we then figure out how we can do it on a budget. A box here, an old sock there, some stuffing, pompoms etc. Those toys are always the best, and longest appreciated. The time you and your child put into the toy together is what they appreciate the most, it is what they will remember when they grow up. So, if you want to have a creative kid, be creative together. :) Don’t expect that they will just pick it up along the way of growing up. Be an example. :)

  19. Some of the best creative toys are wooden blocks. Lots of them. And Brio train sets with LOTS of track, straight track, curved track, tracks that split into 2 tracks. Then let them build and design their own little worlds. Girls love it too and even the grownups. Crayons and white paper are another thing. Every day you can do something different with them. And turn off the TV.

  20. A wonderful article! I remember when I was little my mom made me a cabbage patch doll. My friends said it “wasn’t real.” I didn’t care. I liked it better than the “real” cabbage patch doll I finally got but never played with as much as that one. I loved that my mom had made it.

    But, kids can dabble in name brand character play without it destroying their creativity. My boys are big into Star Wars right now. We got them a cheaper set…it had droids and clone troopers, but none of the main characters. Lo and behold, one of the droids became C3P0, one of the clone troopers becme Luke Skywalker, a duplo girl they already had became Leia, and they made R2D2 from other legos. Brand name products purchased…creativity still in tact! :-)

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