Kids have the wildest dreams! Just ask us what we wanna be when we grow up.
Hundreds of kids call Nintendo each week with game ideas, to the point that the company posts this message on their homepage:
Many more walk out of a Pixar movie thinking they have the next great movie idea, but when they try to submit them in their excitement, the following form greets their bright, shining eyes:
Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more books by kids?
I’ve wondered that as well.
A movement gaining steam is “Girls Who Code.” Not because it’s a catchy slogan, or good PR. It’s because it’s true. Girls can code. Apple went one step further creating a curriculum for schools, “Everyone Can Code.” Then “Everyone Can Create.”
Yes, everyone can create! …But why don’t they?
There’s something missing.
It’s not ability, and certainly not creativity. I think what's missing is motivation, tools, and environment.
If you motivate them, equip them with the necessary tools, and immerse them in a supportive environment, then kids can create!
In my seventh grade math class, we were learning how to write a check and manage a bank account. First, we learned the basics: how to fill out and sign the little slip of paper. Our teacher, Mr. G, gave us all bank accounts and checkbooks. Each of us would start with $100.00 in our account. Overwithdraw, and our grade would plummet by the same amount. What would we buy?
Products by our classmates, of course! 😂
Either working alone or teaming up in pairs, we had to come up with a short product description and a 8.5-by-11” drawing of what it’d do. Sales would boost your grade like the bonus on a test.
A boy in our class named Denny was a math genius and could draw pretty pictures, so I teamed up with him, and we brainstormed what kids could use to take over school. We reasoned that our classmates, seventh graders struggling with their TI-89’s and Westin protractors, would just melt at the chance to own the ultimate Swiss-army school supply. Imagine a featherweight belt (with Batman's logo) that combined your calculator, your ruler, your mechanical pencil, an infinite supply of erasers, and snacks, all within arm’s reach!
Who wouldn’t want that!?
Denny drew a sleek superhero-like belt with sixteen tools, and I wrote a detailed description of the superpower each one would bring you. We priced our masterpiece at $50 and prepared to rake in the (fake) cash! Privately, we joked that our product was so good that all our classmates would overwithdraw their accounts to buy it, lowering their grades and putting us on top of the curve. A master plan!
What could go possibly wrong?
That night, Mr. G posted all of our drawings in the school hallway, pinning a small folder below each one to hold checks for shoppers. The next day, we were turned loose with our checkbooks. I may have bought a $9.99 self-refilling bottle of perfume, or a few sticks of $4.99 energy gum, but nothing seemed a threat to unbuckle our utility belt.
At the end of the day, Denny and I knelt outside on the playground and attacked our check folder like kindergarteners tearing open their life's first box of secret valentines. Out dropped...
One check. Signed Mr. G.
The same thought dawned on both of us as we looked at each other: a pity purchase. From our teacher! Not enough to sustain business. Worse, not enough to boost our grades.
I couldn’t sleep that night. A slideshow ran through my mind of all our giggly classmates writing checks, stuffing them into every folder but ours.
What went wrong?
Was it the Batman logo? The price? The drawing? (I blamed Denny.)
Cooling down, I wondered where the checks were going. I recalled the products I wanted to buy: the self-refilling bottle of perfume, and the energy gum. They were simple: Easy to describe, imagine, and draw. Secretly, I designed a new product by myself: an orb that could suck and distill knowledge from books! I priced it lower, at $20, and simplified my copy. Before school, I Photoshopped artwork from a Magic card and pasted an Amazon image of our math textbook next to it, showing knowledge being sucked out. (Luckily, we didn’t have to implement this.) I surreptitiously taped it to the wall before our next shopping spree.
I never told Denny I was submitting a side entry, but I think he eventually figured it out. Because after Day 2, the folder under my orb was bursting at the seams. Seeing the signed checks of all my peers --even Denny-- some of them at an amount higher than the price written on the folder made me feel like I accomplished something... like I redeemed myself for our first flop! The adrenaline of iterating and overcoming a past failure is something that has driven me to create ever since.
That night, after counting my bonus points, I replayed chatter from my classmates:
Whoa, check out this orb!
Is that our math book!?
Gotta have it for our midterm!
In my small seventh grade world, I was famous!
More importantly, I was motivated.
Motivated to sell.
Motivated to appeal to other people.
Motivated to not get the pity check from Mr. G.
Motivated to design what my classmates wanted.
Motivated to be the talk of seventh grade ('tween vanity: what can I say?).
Motivated to iterate.
Motivated to create.
The next trimester, I took an elective in Photoshop, so I could make better images. I took my fine arts unit in tech theater, because they had the only machine shop equipped with CAD design tools and workbenches, where I could actually make things! This was where I learned what it took to design a product.
I wouldn’t have taken those classes if I didn’t know how their lessons could be applied.
I wouldn’t have taken those classes if my first sales failure hadn’t motivated me to create.
If more classes got students invested in creating, more kids would seek out ways to achieve their goals. In that process, kids learn about what it takes, whether it be Photoshopping, programming, creative writing, soldering, or marketing.
Motivation provides the spark -- the raison d’être-- but the tools provide the means. Motivation can bring us to actively seek tools, but the more accessible they are, the more frictionless it is to acquire them, the more time we can spend creating.
I knew I wanted to build a knowledge-sucking orb, but without a tech theater class with a machine shop, I wouldn’t have the tools to even try. The concept would have remained an idea in my head, not a product in my hand, or a skill in my toolbelt.
In her WWDC19 talk Lighting Worlds to Life, Danielle Feinberg, a lighting director at Pixar, credited a series of after-school programs for sparking her interest in programming. First, a fourth-grade peer's father taught an after-school program that introduced her to BASIC programming. Because she enjoyed BASIC, she sought out a class on Pascal years later. When the Pascal teacher left to get coffee after taking roll, everyone played computer games, but she and her friend ended up breaking into the school cabinets looking for Pascal textbooks, so they could learn what made those games tick. Those extracurricular experiences allowed her to keep her hobby of programming alive long after her first exposure. Danielle ended up studying computer science at Harvard before joining Pixar as a technical director.
The error some educators make is assuming that an abundance of motivation compensates for a lack of tools or environment. Even if Danielle were the most motivated kid whiz,
- the textbooks had to exist in the cabinet,
- in an after-school class that a friend's parent had to offer,
for her to experience the joys of programming that prepared her for a role in creating scenes at Pixar.
Likewise, knowledge conveyed in course curriculum provides tools for writers to use in telling stories: Character development, story structure, the art of dialogue, conflict and suspense.
Don't simply teach kids how to code, or how to write, or how to think.
Motivate them to create. Then provide tools to help them make what they want.
Goals and systems motivate us to create. Tools in hand allow us to build. But a supportive environment is what amplifies that process, providing the feedback necessary to continue improving.
For creative writing, an environment could be as simple as an audience: a forum for feedback. A lot of adult writers still don’t have this audience. Unable to get an agent or publisher to look at her work, my mom took a continuing education writing class so she could get feedback on her writing. She said that her class was full of retired accountants and lawyers. When they were writing, their inner critics — “Will someone sue me for writing this?” ... “Am I hurting the friend this character is based on?” — ended up canceling them out.
Meanwhile, middle school and high school kids are stuck in English class reading The Grapes of Wrath and writing essays about the Great Depression. I didn’t even know creative writing was a thing! In my school, there was composition and literature: composition for thesis and topic sentences, literature for reading uninteresting books. No wonder that many of us end up procrastinating on that essay when faced with more enjoyable diversions, like video games or Instagram. Maybe a few more of us would be motivated to write if we were adding a plot twist to our latest story for our friends, rather than a conclusion to our essay for the teacher.
Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, describes the kind of feedback he got from his environment, as a kid writing his first horror story, The Pit and the Pendulum:
“By the end of lunch hour, when word had gotten around about the lady buried in the wall (“They stared with horror at the bones sticking out from the ends of her fingers, realizing she had died scratcheing madley for escape”), I had sold three dozen. I had nine dollars in change weighing down the bottom of my book-bag… and was walking around in a kind of dream, unable to believe my sudden ascension to previously unsuspected realms of wealth. It all seemed too good to be true.”
Even with that strong motivation, Stephen King contrasts that euphoria with the feedback he got from his teacher, Miss Hisler, when she learned of his sales: “What I don’t understand, Stevie,” she said, “is why you’d write junk like this in the first place. You’re talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?” She had rolled up a copy of V.I.B. (Very Important Book) #1 and was brandishing it at me the way a person might brandish a rolled-up newspaper at a dog that has piddled on the rug. She waited for me to answer—to her credit, the question was not entirely rhetorical—but I had no answer to give. I was ashamed. I have spent a good many years since—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write.”
Stephen King’s confession echoes what many children experience when their enthusiasm and obsession for programming games, drawing comics, or —heaven forbid—writing novels are nascent but unpopular. Even the slightest discouragement from the environment can have lasting effects turning them away from pursuing creation. Many children never have a chance to publish because they never get past Miss Hisler.
Conversely, the joy of receiving feedback from readers can encourage kids to try harder, improve, create better, so they can better reach their audience.
Childhood is a prime time to write, because the inner voice stifling our creativity is still tame! Childhood is when our inner critics are at their weakest -- but unfortunately, also when our outer critics are at their strongest. For kids, our environment is the harshest outer critic.
Instead of class discussions about the lessons learned from a Mesopotamian urn or pop quizzes on current events, how about discussing the dialogue between Harry and Hermione? Instead of trading Pokémon with friends after school, how about trading ideas for the next Snapchat? Instead of practicing two-a-days for a soccer game, how about training for that hackathon or agent query letter? Instead of assigning summer reading about what teachers enjoy, how about encouraging kids to read what they enjoy?
Encourage them, mentor them, and help them improve their storytelling, design, and development. Nurture their creative spirit, then watch them create!
With a motivation to create, access to tools for applying skills, and a supportive environment, kids can create just as prolifically as adults. Age isn’t a limiting factor: it can be a strength.
Like my seventh grade peers, Stephen King’s classmates gave him instant feedback, and their interest motivated him to continue writing.
Danielle Feinberg—and countless other software engineers— got into programming because they were curious about how games were made, and how they could control pixels on the screen.
Author Christopher Paolini dreamed up the world of Eragon during his early teenage years, in a supportive homeschool environment tailored to his writing interests, then pursued publishing with the help of his parents, who were his first readers.
Motivation, tools, environment.
With them, kids can create.
With iteration, we can improve.
The do-it-all utility belts can fail in the classroom, with only fake checks and ‘tween fame on the line, rather than in the real world, with company budgets and investor funding at stake. In fact, without the proper motivation, tools, or environment, so many crazy ideas in the heads of child creators might not even reach the real world, forsaken to fade in the recesses of forgotten memory.
I’m still working on that knowledge-sucking orb! 😉