The Grey Matters: How Adversity May Impact Children’s Creative Growth and Development

Alex, a six-year-old child, and her six other friends are trying to divide 11 cookies evenly amongst themselves.

At first, this is a difficult problem to solve: who gets one cookie and who gets two? The children discuss different strategies of dividing the cookies, including each taking one, and leaving four in the jar for their other friend who is at home sick, or cutting up the remaining four cookies in halves so they each get one and one-half of a cookie. They finally agree that 4 of them will get one cookie, 3 of them will get two, and who gets two cookies will be decided by playing rock-paper-scissors.- The extra will be left for their sick friend for when she comes back to play group. Next time, those who only got one cookie would be the ones who get two cookies. An adult might have suggested that the children each take a cookie, and leave the remaining four cookies for another day, or, that they each take one and one-half of a cookie. But what fun would this be when, through creative thinking and problem-solving, some of them could enjoy two cookies instead of just one?

Through this cookie dilemma Alex and her friends learned a lot more than how to share their delicious snack.

They learned about the importance of collaboration, fluency (i.e., coming up with multiple solutions to a problem), and originality (i.e., coming up with unique solutions), two important components of little-c creativity, the kind of creativity that is used by everyday people in everyday life (Isbell & Yoshisawa, 2016). It is broadly defined, and encompasses a range of behaviors, from “trying a task in a new way” to recycling old items to make new ones (Isbell & Yoshisawa, 2016).

As they grow up, Alex and her friends will solve problems that are a lot more difficult than splitting cookies

From solving difficult math problems in grade school, to crafting well-written essays high school and college, to engaging in collaboration with others and creative problem-solving as members of the work-force, Alex and her friends will increasingly depend on their ability to think creatively.  

These are behaviors that individuals engage in from early on in childhood. Thus, learning to think creatively is a critical part of everyone’s social and cognitive development. 

However, fostering creative thinking skills is also dependent on the nature environment in which children learn to think creatively, and specifically, on how much the learning environment encourages children’s creative growth. Research has shown that children who live in adverse conditions face disadvantages in their capacity to learn and develop healthy social and cognitive skills (Lyden et al., 2016; Saxbe et al., 2018). Because fostering creative thinking skills depends on both social and cognitive thinking skills, children who face adversity also face disadvantages in developing the ability to think creativity.

The Difference Between Adversity and Everyday Stress

Figuring out who gets how many cookies may have initially seemed like a difficult situation, but the children were easily able to resolve this issue with some strategic thinking. This type of stress is a “Positive Stress” (University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development, 2013): though the children initially encountered difficulty, they worked together to figure out how to resolve the issue thus boosting both their social and  cognitive development. Other types of difficulties like being in a car accident, which may hinder a child’s development but are still stressful incidences that they child can recover from if they have social support (UMN Institute of Child Development, 2013).

Difficulties that are categorized under “adversity” are different in that they are not as easily solved.

For example, facing community violence (e.g., hearing gunshots or drug use), mental health issues or illnesses, taxing infectious diseases like HIV or living in low socioeconomic status households or in an environment where the child is not supported by parents and other adults (CDC, 2019; UMN Institute of Child Development, 2013). These stressful factors are chronic,  may result in pro-longed release of stress-related chemicals in the body such as cortisol (UMN Institute of Child Development, 2013). This can cause a decrease of neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is critical to learning and memory. In turn, this may influence children’s cognitive development, and the way they interact with others.  

Adversity, Cognitive Development and Creativity

Suppose that Isabella, a teenager, has learned that after every fight she has with her mom when her mom does not pay rent on time, drinking alcohol makes her feel better. That annoying counselor at her high school keeps telling her that if she ever feels down, it’s better to talk things out rather than drinking. But  she feels that her friends don’t care about her fights with her mom, and a drink seems to relax her so much faster. This is the set solution that you’ve learned to fix her mental health issues, and as a tried-and-true method, she’s convinced that it is the only solution that works.

Though those who are privileged enough to have the means to seek mental healthcare may see why this dialogue is problematic and harmful, it also demonstrates limited cognitive flexibility and fluency, two critical aspects of little-c creativity (Isbell & Yoshisawa, 2016). While it’s possible that this habituation to drinking may have emerged only recently, when Isabella started fighting with her mom, it’s also possible that this inflexibility in forming solutions emerged due to limited plasticity.

Neural plasticity in the brain is the phenomenon by which the neurons in the brain can form new connections with one another in response to experience.

Thus, neural plasticity is a requirement of learning. In adverse conditions, neural plasticity decreases (UMN Institute of Child Development, 2013), thus also decreasing the flexibility of the brain and thus, can result in a decrease in capacity for cognitive flexibility.  Indeed Saxbe et al. (2018) found that youth who witnessed community violence tended to have smaller hippocampi,  area of the brain that is especially important to learning and memory. In Isabella’s case, this may translate into a limited capacity to think flexibly and find other ways to solve her problems with her mom. Saxbe et al. (2018) also found that exposure to community violence was correlated with smaller amygdala volume, which is an area of the brain that is critical for processing information related to emotion. As such, exposure to adversity may impact how Isabella’s social and emotional health, and the ways in which she interacts with others.  

Adversity, Social Relationships and Collaborative, Creative Thinking

Imagine how your interactions with others might go if you’re always on the lookout for danger: your brother promised he’d stop inviting over his friend who always smokes at your house even though he’s not supposed to; your mom’s boyfriend is yelling at her, again, and she won’t break up with him; you man who always stands outside your house and yells is back at it again, even when the cops told your parents they’d keep them away: people keep making you promises they just can’t keep, and if you’ve been let down in so many ways, who’s to say that anyone is really trustworthy?

In addition to their findings regarding the relation between adversity and hippocampus size, Saxbe et al. (2018) also found that exposure to community violence was associated with stronger resting-state connectivity between HPC and insula, which is a key part of the salience network which we may use when working towards goals (Saxbe et al., 2018). This connectivity may reflect hypervigilance (Marusak, Etkin, & Thomason, 2015). Children who are hypervigilant may face more difficulty in trusting others and thus, may have difficulty forming meaningful social relationships. This in turn may impact their ability to collaborate with others and engage in creative thinking spaces and communities.

Going back to Alex’s cookie problem, we can see that sometimes the most innovative solutions come from group work. It was by thinking together, being curious about one another’s ideas, and utilizing fluency of thought that Alex and her friends came up with a solution which would allow them to get the most out of the available cookies. But would a child who has learned not to trust others be as willing to collaborate, or as curious about others’ ideas? Or would they be more rigid in the solutions they find, and nervous to approach others for help? These are both important questions to consider in developing a better understanding of children’s social, cognitive and creative development, and what it means for their long-term success.

The Impact of Adversity on Creativity and Life skills

            Unlike adults, early on children are unafraid of judgement. Maybe this is because they still haven’t been taught what is “right” and what is “wrong”, or what is “good” and what is “bad”. They are able to full advantage of doing as they please. As we grow older, doing as we please becomes less of an option, and more of a privilege, one that we’re only really granted once we’ve finished school and joined the workforce and we’re forced to once again hone in on our creative-thinking skills.

           The components of little-C creativity- fluency, flexibility, elaboration, originality, and curiosity- may translate to other skills we use in our creative lives, including thinking critically about difficult problems, communicating and collaborating with others, and being open-minded towards change.

To be able to engage in the workforce requires training in creativity.

Young adults often receive this training in post-secondary education, but children who come who face adversity – financial disadvantage or otherwise- may not have the means to receive this necessary training. Thus, children who face adversity may not only be disadvantaged in their social and cognitive development, but also in their ability to recover from missed opportunities to engage in creative thinking through post-secondary training.  

So, what do we do?

Children can be engaged in little-c creativity from a young age, but having the ability to do so requires for social and cognitive development to occur in a nurturing and encouraging environment. There are many adversities that children can face from early on, and though it would be ideal to ensure that all children grow up in safe, healthy environments, this is impossible to do.

Fostering little-c creativity in all children requires an education system that is adaptive to all children’s needs; specifically, one that accounts for differences among individual children and is not just built for the average child. The fact of the matter is that children come into school facing different difficulties, and through facing these different difficulties, each child brings a different and unique perspective into the education system. Some children come into the education system with visible disabilities, and yet others have invisible disabilities. Others have faced systemic oppression before they are old enough to understand what that term means. Using a model that educates the “average child” swallows and covers these important differences in perspective that would not only allow educators to better understand the students they are teaching, but, through collaboration, students would also be better able to understand one another. A system focused on averages rather than differences is not flexible enough to utilize these different and important perspectives,

All children have curiosities, starting the moment that they are born.

Fostering little-c creativity requires an education system that strives to nurture each child’s curiosities, accounting for differences in the home ee, though children may face adversity at home, their learning environment may be their safe haven.

In summary, it is possible to encourage little-c creativity even to those who may initially not feel encouraged to engage with it, by creating a system that works for all children rather than a system that works around the ideal, stress-free child. 

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