Meaning: These are the crucial years when it is so vital to nurture creativity, precisely because there is a combination of forces and realities that operate against creativity. When kids move through the early years of puberty and into early adolescence, if that child is not already locked in to creative hobbies or committed to a particular art form, the chances are high that both their own developmental psychology and the school’s programming will be conspiring to impede on the imagination. With all the changes going on emotionally, physically, and psychologically with the eleven to fourteen-year-old child, it’s no wonder that the motivation for creativity gets compromised. The child’s newfound and intensive focus on peers and corresponding detachment from adults; a child’s own sense of her/his popularity spiking upward or taking a nosedive; greater self-awareness of one’s own physical appearance; more frequent irritable or moody feelings—this list can go on and on. The upshot is that for those not already committed to creative activities in a major way, the drive to exercise the imagination is typically weakened and a huge challenge to summon. Schools sometime perpetuate a negative attitude toward creativity, adopting the thinking that creativity was something for the little kids in early elementary, but now things need to get serious academically, which in this mindset translates to ditching creative nonsense. The outward profile of these tweens reflects this approach. It’s normal and to be expected that boys will find standard art work or writing poetry to be silly and without relevance; girls will have similarly intense emotional feelings and enter into a phase where having a “crush” can seriously displace their creative outlets. It is not helpful to dismiss these phases as just cliché concerns that kids will just get through in time. The brain is developing in exceptionally powerful ways during these years, and while the prefrontal cortex is probably another decade away from being fully functioning, the preadolescent brain will certainly benefit from an injection of the imagination. One of the most profound researchers in this study of creativity during these years is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (last name pronounced, Chick-Sent-Ma-Holly)—I had the opportunity to see him lecture years ago. Two of his groundbreaking books, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention are among the most important works on this subject. The concept of note here is the term “Flow” which in a nutshell concerns the experience of full, prolonged absorption in a mental activity such as creative thinking, creative activity, or penetrating thinking on a problem to solve. What could be more of a desirable antidote to today’s electronically distracted age and frenzied focus second after second on the fleeting images that are zipped around among these communities of distraction we call social media—“flow” is precisely the opposite of this frenetic and superficial activity. My contention is that children of this age do have a core, deep-in-their-soul need to create and imagine. We could call this their preadolescent, unspoken and undetected crisis. In every way it is as profound for one’s identity as your standard mid-life crisis decades later when one’s soul strives to supplant the ego. The great Middle School teachers definitely intuit these conditions, and they will know how to appeal to the tween’s intrinsic motivation and will sneak or “back-door” opportunities for creative and imaginative expression into their lessons without it being the marquee purpose on the syllabus.
Actions: For the classroom, teachers who do well with their Middle School kids understand the tweens’ need for connection with each other while at the same time their desire for independence is growing. Essentially, as a teacher you need to be crafty and hyper-observant of moods and dispositions among the students, and you have to have that bag of tricks to communicate effectively—finding ways to pull groups together in collaborative exercises while honoring individual need to express themselves. My core philosophy for teacher effectiveness for any of the PS-12 grades is first and foremost, above and beyond even a teacher’s academic credentials and experience level, is for teachers to know and love the kids. If you don’t seek to know them—their strengths, passions, interests, background, behavioral nuances, etc—and if you don’t genuinely care for them and their development, they will not respond to you, plain and simple. One thing all kids are way more sensitive to than adults—yes, let me repeat, I said that young kids are far superior to adults in this perceptual category, and that is they can read inauthenticity in adults in a flash. [Adults, conversely, are all too frequently bamboozled and smitten by inauthenticity.] Kids know which teachers care genuinely about their progress, and which teachers are only in it for the paycheck and thus just marking time. I met a teacher who had many years behind him, teaching Middle School kids for decades, but then he retired suddenly, several years before typical retirement age, bemoaning the fact that he never did reach this age group. He recounted several overnight trips he chaperoned with kids to different cities and states, and spoke about his continuous exasperation and frustration. He said his chaperoning was always like trying to herd cats. And no wonder, when I asked him if he really cared about his students and ever honestly liked working with these kids, he replied, “You’ve got to be kidding—these were not human beings. They were animals.” There you have it—if you don’t love these kids and don’t care to know about them, it’s lights out. Cultivating creativity and stoking the imagination is really what teaching should be about, first and foremost—it is the greatest pathway to academic skills development, to inspiring interest in furthering one’s knowledge, to instilling an intrinsic interest to pursue subjects and societal issues more aggressively in later years. It’s a little more challenging on the home front for parents to move the imaginative ball forward for their tween kids, but that’s only because kids during these years are exploring their independence and testing their parents’ authority by way of steering clear of them, disengaging from their parents’ topics and lectures, and avoiding what they see as their parents’ intrusion into their lives. This is all to be expected, and it is normal. Parents will more much more success with their kids during these years if they can partner with their teachers in terms of emphasizing risk-taking, creativity, and innovation, and parents should also seek any side means possible to engage their children in artistic or imaginative pursuits, even if we’re simply talking about simple games families can play together at home.
Learning: I mentioned earlier the research and books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which include the books Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention; for a primer on Csikszentmihalyi’s philosophy, check out his Youtube 2004 Ted Talk on “Flow, the Secret to Happiness.” An article that points out the statistical advantages of engaging your child in the arts if you want to see academic success across the board, is “The Importance of the Creative Arts for Children and Teens,” found on the Child Development Institute site: childdevelopmentinfo.com. Because I am a fan of English classes, having taught English for 19 years, I want to point you to a super site displaying ideas for the English teacher entitled, “55 Creative Writing Prompts for Tweens,” assembled by Jill Schoenberg on her journalbuddies.com site. For parents, trying to connect with your children during these pre-adolescent years is a serious challenge, let alone being able to lead them to drink at the trough of the imagination. Just taking a step back from these creativity strategies for a moment, it may be helpful to establish ongoing communication with your child first and foremost. A very good article on this topic is, “Irresponsible Children: Why Nagging and Lecturing Won’t Work,” by Debbie Pincus, located on the Empoweringparents.com site. This article can set the groundwork for more productive interchange with your child—once established, such a relationship can more easily lead toward engagement with creativity and the imagination.