Margaret Sabin

At first blush, creativity and standardized testing just don’t seem to mix. After all, what score could apply to the Mona Lisa? What metric could predict the disruptive idea that led to a company such as Airbnb?

In truth, scientists have been devising ways to measure creativity for some time. The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, for example, have been generating data on creativity since the 1960s. Scored in four categories — fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration — they measure kids’ ability to think differently from their peers by measuring the quantity and originality of their ideas on several different scales.

Can a standardized test measure something as subjective as originality and humor (two of the scoring criteria)? Maybe, maybe not. But consider this: Whether they really do measure creativity, big, longitudinal studies repeatedly show that Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking tests are a statistically significant predictor of lifetime achievement.

Artists, inventors, entrepreneurs all tend to post higher scores in childhood than their peers. In fact, the test is a better predictor of high-quality innovative creative output than IQ, high school grades or even the predictions of their peers.

That’s why it’s more than a little troubling that researches who study Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking data are noting significant decreases in creativity scores for children from kindergarten through sixth grade for the first time in the 50 years they’ve been tracking them. In an article published in the Creativity Research Journal in 2011, one well-known researcher called it a “creativity crisis.”

Why is it happening? That’s hard to say. As we know in the health care industry, correlation doesn’t always equal causation. Still, I can’t help but notice a parallel trend: As creativity scores in kids go down, kids’ screen time is on the rise.

A review study published this year in JAMA Pediatrics (Journal of the American Medical Association) estimated average daily screen time rose from about 1.32 for kids age 2 and under in 1997 to 3.05 daily hours in 2014. Meanwhile, another JAMA study from this year showed a solid correlation between higher levels of screen time at age 2 and poorer performance on developmental screening tests at age 5. And another 2019 study by the University of Calgary found that greater screen time at 2 years old was associated with poorer performance on communication, motor skill and problem-solving.

How much screen time is too much? For now, we don’t really know. Still, it’s certain that, when our brains are engaged in screens, they’re not engaged in the kind of free, unfettered thought that happens when we’re watching clouds pass or considering a robin’s song. And we’re certainly not playing dress-up or putting on a puppet show.

Kids are great at this kind of imaginative pretend play and, countless studies show, it’s great for them. Pretend play gives kids an outlet to express their emotions, which helps them learn to regulate and integrate emotion with cognition. The pretend roles they play teach them communication, problem-solving and empathy.

When they become scientists or stage stars, when they turn their tricycles into rearing unicorns and the magic of their world takes wing, they’re not just playing. They’re exercising their originality, elaboration and cognitive flexibility — the same creative muscles measured by tests like the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

But they can’t build these worlds when the worlds are built for them on screens.

Technology, of course, is not evil. Screen time can help kids learn some things faster. It can help them develop an ease with technology that will serve them well in the future. It can give them easy access to the greater world beyond.

And we’re still in the early stages of decoding the long-term impacts of screen time on young minds — not just how much, but what kind and in combination with what kind of variables. Until we have a better understanding, most doctors would like to see parents monitor screen time more carefully and return to the kinds of activities through which kids, young and older alike, can unshackle their brains and let their minds meander.

So let’s disrupt our screen habits. Let’s lay down our tablets and turn off the TV and go outside right now, smell the sweet spring grass, take a hike, fly a kite, or just contemplate the bark on a tree.

You never know.

That kind of disruption might just lead to the next Airbnb.

Margaret Sabin is president of Children’s Hospital Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Margaret Sabin is President of Children’s Hospital Colorado, Colorado Springs.

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