Want your children to be creative critical thinkers? Let them move!

September 22, 2016
Dean Kriellaars and Patrice Aubertin

We are in a culture that values innovation and critical thinking. We know that creative people are the ones with “deep knowledge” and are able to generate ideas from this fertile ground, but also are capable of pruning the ideas to create a novel and suitable solution to a problem, or better yet, to create a unique problem to solve. We know that critical thinkers need to be aware, capable of interpreting the physical and social setting, so as to have a realistic appraisal of the world, so that decisions they make lead to actions that will likely succeed. Interestingly, critical thinkers and creative people truly realize that failure is part of success, not the opposite of it.

However, our children are immersed in a culture that fosters the notion that failure is to be avoided, that all activities must be supervised, that talent is a “podium finish” and where the primary interaction with the world and others is through a screen. As a result of this “bubble wrap,” our children have their naturally curious and adventurous spirits suppressed, and quickly learn to be risk averse. Our children need permission to move, and primarily participate in highly structured activities where they are told what to do; when placed in settings where imagination is required, they will turn to an adult to seek the “OK” to engage. If you are nodding your head in agreement, then you have realized we are stifling the very things we desire as a society — creativity and critical thinking.

There is an adage we use in neuroscience that says “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that a person’s brain (at any age, I might add), will continuously change (termed plasticity) based upon the stimuli it encounters. Children growing up in the 60s and 70s were permitted to be “free range chickens” and roamed widely in their neighbourhoods on foot and bike. In two generations the free range of a child has decreased from many kilometres to less than 500 metres!

In the absence of exposure to the outside and variable world, and without the necessity to solve problems on its own, the brain will change accordingly. Children who routinely move in various environments develop robust brains capable of making decisions on the fly and executing movements suitable to the circumstances.

Children need to develop a large range of movement skills in many environments (land, air, water, snow, ice — indoor and out) as this is the “fertile ground” from which they can create and use new movements suitable for the circumstances. A prime example is walking on ice. I have seen many a playground at schools where icy sections are declared off limits with pylons. There is no way to learn how to walk on ice without the actual experience. Imagine growing up not being able to be able to walk on, or be able to stumble and recover balance on ice, or even how to suitably fall on an icy surface. Everyone will fall numerous times in their lives, and it is as important to learn how to fall as it is to avoid falling. Simply stating that children should avoid falling is creating fear of movement.

Prior to puberty, less than 50 per cent of children are active enough to meet the minimum physical activity guidelines, and after puberty this precipitously drops to less than 10 per cent. Without movement, the brain and body fail to develop optimally. This certainly has well known health consequences, but what people fail to recognize is that this also has serious implications for developing problem solvers and innovators. Worse yet, by 12 years of age, most children will experience strong social inhibition of movement in front of others — wiring in the brain that takes serious effort to undo.

So what do we do? As a parent, you need to set aside time when children can explore Canada’s wonderful landscape. It doesn’t mean taking them out of structured activities, but rather adding scheduled times to do unstructured movement. You could also encourage the addition of “free play” or low structured activities inside of structured sessions. We as adults need to make the attraction of moving with others stronger than the attraction of texting with others.

Children need to explore and develop their own movement potential. Being told what to do all the time certainly does not contribute to decision making. Besides, ownership of movement instills motivation to move — let them see their own talent emerge through exploration and guided discovery. Exploring the world also has the benefit of making an authentic connection to the earth, helping our children value and take action in saving this planet for future generations.

Dr. Dean Kriellaars is an exercise physiologist who works in rehabilitation and high-performance sport. An associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Manitoba, Kriellaars is a recognized expert in physical literacy and has pioneered programs that have been adopted nationwide.

Patrice Aubertin is the director of research and teacher training at the National Circus School in Montréal. He is a former acrobatic coach for Cirque du Soleil.