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Sheridan Turner, president and CEO of Kohl Children’s Museum, on how to nurture creativity

Sheridan Turner

Sheridan Turner

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Updated: January 30, 2014 3:59PM

For years now, educational experts have warned that Americans are stifling creativity in children. We’re creating classes of graduates who can regurgitate pages of facts — all unassailably correct — but who can’t think outside a simple box. Unfortunately, it’s often those who are tasked with nurturing ingenuity who are inadvertently killing it.

As the president of Kohl Children’s Museum, I am continuously challenged to create an environment that meets children’s needs for creative outlets. I believe that by spoon-feeding children the “right way” to do things, we destroy their creativity and their problem-solving skill development. We are so focused on teaching that we don’t let them learn.

Many years ago, when I was leading a nursery school, we scheduled free play time for the children with simple materials: cardboard boxes, planks, tubes and balls.

Three-year-old Troy wanted to build a catapult. Very quickly, he figured out the basics, balancing a 2-foot plank over a small tube to create a lever and fulcrum (though it would be years before he learned the physics terminology). But he soon encountered a road block: He carefully placed a ball on the lower end of the seesaw, but by the time he ran around to stomp on the higher end, the ball had rolled off.

I resisted the urge to just tell him how to fix it, and subtly pushed some soft sponges over to him, expecting him to use them to block the ball from rolling off. He grabbed one, placed it on the lever, then placed the ball directly on top of the sponge. As he got up to run to the other side, the ball again rolled off. Undaunted, he ran around and pressed it more firmly onto the sponge. After several more failed attempts, Troy plopped down and glared at his creation.

Then Troy’s eye fell on a 4-inch circular tube lying nearby. He dropped it on its round side, where it started to roll. Delighted, he flipped the tube on its end, creating for all intents and purposes, a tee. He gingerly situated the ball on top of the pipe, and watched to make sure it didn’t move before running to the other end of the plank. Ten seconds later, the ball was airborne, and — I like to think — a future engineer was born.

Stories like these illustrate why we must create environments where children feel safe enough to explore, to try things out, to experiment and to potentially fail and try again. The greatest leaps and bounds in medicine, science, engineering and the arts have been made by those who not only understand the facts, but can manipulate the processes and challenge the impossible everyday.

This is why you won’t find coloring books in our museum. Why teach kids so early that they must always stay inside the lines? This fall, we also opened three new exhibits that focus on literacy, but not by drilling vocabulary. Rather, we are providing a space where they can immerse themselves in books, and discover a love of reading that I hope will last a lifetime. In our newest exhibit — Japan and Nature: Spirits of the Seasons, opening Tuesday — we offer children a glimpse into an unfamiliar culture by offering an in-depth exploration of multiple regions of Japan through video, audio and visual media, as well as authentic props and hands-on interactive activities.

I believe in giving children the tools, but allowing them to create the process. You might just be surprised at where their young minds can go.

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