3 indoor activities to build creativity

With current school closures and approaching summer holidays, most parents are worried about the impact of extended breaks on learning for their children. While most of us associate academic work with learning, there are many different ways for children to learn and build crucial skills during these times. Students learn as much, if not more, from play and social interactions than with pure academic work. 

Here are three different ways to stretch your child’s thinking and build cognitive skills like creativity and critical thinking, in a much more stress free way.

Reframe challenges as opportunities

One powerful way to build an innovation mindset is to reframe problems as opportunities that are just waiting for a creative solution. The easiest way to find problems is with day to day activities and chores that children engage in. 

Ask your child what activities and chores they find inconvenient and how can they improve that experience. When posed as a challenge, children can come up with clever ideas. One of our students, who found cleaning his pets’ cages gross, came up with a clever idea of a new kind of trash bag with drawstrings all around that can be used to line the cage. When you need to clean the cage, you just have to pull the drawstring and all the mess gets caught in the bag.  Another student came up with the idea of a remote controlled mechanism to take out regular trash so you don’t have to carry a stinky bag for a long time. 

While not all ideas will be immediately helpful, it helps children to start thinking of problems as opportunities that they can find clever solutions to.   

Join the imaginary play

Young children can spend, what often feels like, an inordinate amount of time in imaginary pretend play. However, pretend play is also a child’s cognitive playground – where they can freely practice how to think and problem solve in different situations – and in the process build a deeper understanding of the world around them. 

In more elaborate forms, pretend play can grow into fantasy worlds or paracosms, where a child constructs an entire imaginary world with its own rules and systems. Michele Root-Bernstein, Professor and creativity scholar, found that engaging in building fantasy worlds as a child was indicative of creative accomplishments in adulthood. Highly renowned people across different disciplines like the Bronte siblings, Nietszche and Mozart invented imaginary worlds, as did a large number of MacArthur genius award recipients. She believes that the creativity involved in building fantasy worlds, equips children with skills like imagining, empathizing, modeling, problem solving and rule-breaking that are essential for any creative work. 

Pretend play and paracosms also provide an opportunity for parents and other family members to help stretch their child’s thinking. You can join your child in their fantasy world and co-create situations that need to be addressed or problems that need to be solved. In doing so, you give them a safe space to experiment with ideas while building a deeper understanding of society. 

Add counterfactual thinking to reading time

The benefits of reading books with your child, from cognitive to social emotional are well known. In a study designed to understand the effect of reading in toddlers, children were assigned to an intervention group or a control group. The intervention group received age appropriate books and additional reading time compared to the control group. The results of the study showed that families in the intervention group that did shared reading with their toddler groups, and not just reading aloud, showed significantly larger vocabulary scores compared to the control group. 

Parents can give an additional boost to shared book reading times by adding counterfactual thinking, which builds both creative and critical thinking. Save some time after reading a book together to discuss the book and pose additional questions. You can create different counterfactual questions by modifying or adding an event in the story or by changing characters and settings. For example, what would have happened if Dumbledore never gave Harry Potter the cloak of invisibility, or what would the story of Snow White look like in modern times? Sharing your ideas to the same prompts after your child shares theirs can help improve their ability to think in more diverse ways.  

The original version of this article appeared on edCircuit

If Pigs Could Fly…

In the late 80s, researchers studying logical learning in children gave a group of 4 year olds the premise that ‘all pigs can fly’ and that ‘John is a pig’. Most of the kids had trouble reaching the conclusion that ‘John can fly’, until the researchers changed the instructions a little.

When the researchers first told the kids ‘let’s pretend that [all pigs can fly]…’, their performance on this task improved significantly. Somehow, transferring the rule to a pretend world helped the children in reasoning abstractly about that world.

The exact mechanism of why pretending helps with reasoning is not fully clear, but research in the last couple of decades has shown that pretend scenarios play an important role in cognitive development.

Psychologists, Weisberg and Gopnik, have proposed that unrealistic pretend scenarios don’t just help with counterfactual reasoning – they are also important for causal learning which can in some cases be harder to do with real-world scenarios. As they explain about Einstein’s theories, “Einstein’s thought experiments are a good scientific example of how unrealistic counterfactuals can help to distinguish potential causal structures. Both relativistic and classical theories of physics make similar predictions in commonly observed cases. Considering very unlikely possibilities, such as a world where the speed of light is different, can help discriminate between these theories.

Unrealistic pretend scenarios are also an integral part of creative thinking and utilize, among other things, associative thinking. For instance, comprehending the statement, ‘If dogs had gills…’, requirescreation of an unusual conceptual combination (‘dogs’ and ‘gills’) with potential consequences that go beyond what is literally stated.

Torrance, also known as the father of creativity, included two tasks (‘Just Suppose’ and ‘Consequences Task’) around improbable situations in his Torrance Test of Creative Thinking.

Our newest category of brainteasers at MindAntix, ‘What Would Happen If…’, present unrealistic scenarios and ask users to come up with as many reasonable consequences as possible. Our goal is to build the cognitive processes underlying logical and creative thinking like disengaging with reality, making inferences and associative thinking.

So, the next time you are bored try making up a new world where the usual rules don’t apply. How would things be different in that world? What would happen as a consequence of those strange new rules? And maybe while thinking about that you might even discover a new insight about our own world!

Historical What Ifs

What if Adolf Hitler had died during World War 1? Would there have been a second World War? Or, what if the Boston Tea Party never happened? “What if” questions like these, or in other words, counterfactual questions, have lately become a genre of historical research. But are such questions useful? Is there any benefit to speculating on events that never took place?

While some people dismiss such hypothetical questions as merely entertaining, Professor Richard Lebow believes that Counterfactuals are “essential teaching tools and critical to establishing claims of causation.” He showed that counterfactuals help in a few different ways:

  • Better understanding of different underlying factors: We have a natural bias to ascribe an outcome as inevitable by highlighting some factors more that others. In addition, once the outcome is known, we find it harder to appreciate additional forces in play (“certainty of hindsight bias”). As Lebow puts it, “By tracing the path that appears to have led to a known outcome, we diminish our sensitivity to alternative paths and outcomes.
  • Evaluating theories and interpretations: By examining the counterfactual associated with a causal theory, we can make explicit the assumptions in the theory. In Lebow’s words, “Counterfactual experiments can tease out the assumptions—often unarticulated—on which theories and historical interpretations rest.
  • Assessing outcomes of real world policies or events: Counterfactual thinking helps in evaluating how a particular policy might play out in the real world.

Historical counterfactual questions like the ones in the “Virtual History” category at MindAntix, don’t just help understand history better, they also tickle your creative nerve. For counterfactuals to be useful, they need to be plausible – which means that both divergent (coming up with different turning points) and critical thinking (integrating with historical facts) gets exercised. Creativity isn’t just about being imaginative – a solution to has to be both original and appropriate for it to be truly creative.

So, what’s the best way to solve these historical “What Ifs”? There is really no right answer as long as relevant facts have been used to construct a plausible scenario. However, there are some biases to be cautious of:

  • Neglecting general causal forces: A common mistake is to assume that if an event X had not occurred, things would have gone on as they did before X. For example, if the Romans had not been defeated at the Teutoburger Wald, the Roman Empire would have expanded into current day Germany. The fallacy with this theory is that it ignores the underlying forces that caused the event in the first place. In this case, the strain of geopolitical overextension faced by the Romans that would have eventually led to a defeat sooner or later.
  • Making individuals larger than life: Another prevalent  bias is to assume that a particular individual made all the difference in an outcome. For example, believing  that if Hitler had been killed in World War 1, there would not have been a Nazi movement.  This theory assumes that a leader’s charisma mobilizes groups into action. In reality it’s the other way around – charisma arises in times of social unrest and creates leaders. Charismatic leaders are replaceable – when one is eliminated, a new one can easily take it’s place.

Counterfactual reasoning, or the ability to reflect on alternate possibilities is a developmental milestone that occurs around the age of 5-6 in children. Such reasoning, even for day to day events, helps in learning from mistakes and improving outcomes in the future. Historical counterfactuals are a great way to develop such reasoning while building a deeper understanding of that historical period. What ifs can show that “small accidents or split-second decisions are as likely to have major repercussions as large ones.