'Are children playing with toys that leave little room for the imagination?'

24th December 2014 at 10:00

Dr Juha Ylä-Jääski, chief executive of Technology Academy Finland, writes:

This Christmas Eve, parents around the world will be gift-wrapping toys of brain-addling complexity. Given that the average computer game has more computing power than a NASA spacecraft of a generation ago, it’s not surprising that parents fret a little. Are our children playing with toys that are so sophisticated that they leave little room for the imagination?

But this pessimism – whilst tempting – is too simplistic. The lure of the Xbox and PlayStation may be intoxicating for the young. But it’s worth remembering that Lego overtook Barbie to become the world’s most popular toy this year. It’s testament to the enduring creativity of children that, despite the explosion in computer power, they would rather be letting their imaginations loose on a simple plastic brick that was first sold in the 1950s.

In Finland, we run a national competition for elementary school children – This Works! –in which children create a moving toy and prepare an accompanying sales pitch.

More than 130,000 children have taken part over the last ten years. Schools are provided with packs that have basic office and stationary materials out of which they have to develop a workable toy. Worries that children have lost their inventive spark are disproved here. Their dazzling creativity is endlessly fascinating: from wiring up potatoes to make electricity to making a wooden catapult, or even a giant pinball machine out of loo-roll holders.

This Works! teaches children the basics of innovation: they need to have a plan, be able to work in a team, show a willingness to change direction – or even start again - and be able to be critical of their own approach.

What this competition has taught me is that innovation can be taught. True innovation is much more than a light bulb moment of inspiration: it is a process of discovery that starts with an idea and ends with something practical. You can teach this chain – how to take up a discovery and make it a practical tool. 

The competition has also made me reflect on how we value creativity through the education system. In most schools failing and taking risks are the worst things that you can do. In conventional schools, students learn so that they can achieve good grades. Many focus too much on the theoretical side of things and not enough on encouraging innovation.

Worse still, creativity in children is sometimes stifled, with pupils labelled disruptive or distracting. However, this is not an argument for a free-for all: you can’t just say to pupils: "Do whatever you like." You have to somehow make learning systematic and give them skills.

Allowing creativity to flourish means that parents and teachers have to encourage passion and lateral thinking rather than simply demanding that young people perform will in exams. This is of course easier said than done. It also requires a curriculum that rewards innovative thought from pupils.

Finland doesn’t have a perfect education system, but one of the reasons it remains high in the PISA rankings of educational performance is that, unlike other rigid education systems, there remains flexibility in the curriculum for teachers to plan their own lessons and follow the enthusiasms and curiosities of their students. While much of the world has adopted ever more standardised testing, formal tests are kept to a minimum in Finland  – and pupils are judged on their wider contributions to the class.

Of course, every country, on the lookout for their next Biz Stone or Mark Zuckerberg is finding ways of promoting innovation in schools. The Los Angeles school district has set up the 12-18 incubator school to help students learn how to be innovators. Pupils work on setting up a start-up each year and learn lessons on how to create profit-sharing strategies for their school lemonade stand.

In the UK, schoolchildren as young as five as could be taught how to set up their own businesses in "entrepreneurship lessons" under new plans being supported by David Cameron.

However, more important than any of these eye-catching initiatives is getting the simple things right. We should ensure that we don’t over-schedule our children with too many extra-curricular activities. There is a danger now that children have diaries that are so crammed that they lack the time to make their own discoveries.  

Children have a precious quality – the curiosity to ask questions. As Jonathan Swift wrote, “invention is the talent of youth, as judgment is of age”. From Guglielmo Marconi to Thomas Edison, the list of inventors who had breakthroughs or key insights at a young age is long. Alexander Graham Bell started working on his ideas for transmitting speech at the age of just 18, while George Westinghouse filed his first patent for a rotary steam engine at the age of 19.

These world-changing inventions may seem a long way from experimenting with yoghurt pots, sellotape and egg-boxes to make a toy. But innovators have to start somewhere.

On Christmas morning, parents everywhere will be watching children unwrapping their high-tech new toys. For those who harbour ambitions for their offspring to be an innovator of the future, I have some advice. In those grey days after Christmas when the battery has run flat on their expensive new present, give them a few simple materials, give them some space to think, and let their imagination run riot.


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