Children are Amazingly Creative At Solving Problems

This story at NPR reminded my of Russell Ackoff talking about the creativity kids show in solving problems* – and how school often stifles that creativity.

Preschoolers Outsmart College Students In Figuring Out Gadgets

Children try a variety of novel ideas and unusual strategies to get the gadget to go. For example, Gopnik says, “If the child sees that a square block and a round block independently turn the music on, then they’ll take a square and take a circle and put them both on the machine together to make it go, even though they never actually saw the experimenters do that.”

This is flexible, fluid thinking — children exploring an unlikely hypothesis. Exploratory learning comes naturally to young children, says Gopnik. Adults, on the other hand, jump on the first, most obvious solution and doggedly stick to it, even if it’s not working. That’s inflexible, narrow thinking. “We think the moral of the study is that maybe children are better at solving problems when the solution is an unexpected one,” says Gopnik.

And that flexibility may disappear earlier than we think. Gopnik’s lab has also compared toddlers and kindergartners in doing these tests of abstract thinking, and found that the diaper set are actually better at focusing on the relationship between the objects, rather than on the things.

To those, like me, that use Deming’s ideas to help understand and improve management it is apparent these findings relate directly to two areas of Deming’s management system: psychology and theory of knowledge (how we know what we know).

Understanding how our psychology limits are effectiveness can be used to counter those tendencies.

And as Daniel Boorstin said:

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Understanding the limits of our knowledge and our tendency to become rigid in our thinking can help us avoid blinding ourselves to options. Our brains overrule options without us consciously even knowing that is happening; it takes effort to overcome this tendency.


Certain improvement tools (for example brainstorming) attempt to counter this problem by encouraging creative thinking and breaking the tendency for adults to constrain their thinking.

Related: Taking Risks Based on EvidenceNaturally Curious ChildrenLearn by Seeking Knowledge, Don’t Only Learn from MistakesEncouraging Curiosity in KidsExtrinsic Incentives Kill Creativity

*I can’t find a link right now, maybe I will update it later. I am thinking of two stories I heard Ackoff tell, one about children’s innovative solution to wheelbarrows rolling smoothly and another where his daughter’s innovative solution to a “thinking outside the box” challenge was rejected by the teacher because it wasn’t inside the box the teacher wanted solutions to come from.

“Preschoolers are curious about almost everything. Postschoolers are curious about almost nothing.” -Russell Ackoff

2 thoughts on “Children are Amazingly Creative At Solving Problems

  1. Robert Drescher

    Hi John

    It doesn’t only happen in school that we stifle creativity. When I was a kid Lego was in my opinion a great toy. You got a box full of parts and you had to create something from them, over time that one box of parts created hundreds of different items. Today much of what Lego sells is a kit to build one item. Seems when we need creative thinking the most we are doing more to stop it than to unleash it.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Carnival of Quality Management Articles and Blogs – August 2014 Edition | The world is too small? or Is it?

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