Youth Development and the Creative Life

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Beauty is the only thing that can save the world.

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Many policymakers seem to think that all good things hinge on math and science scores. Math and science tests are the centerpiece of the testing craze. Schools are rewarded or punished on the basis of on their test results. School leaders and the captains of industry are yoked by one idea: For the United States to maintain its competitive advantage, we need to generate mass quantities of youths competent in math and science.

They’ve got it wrong. It’s the creative arts that will save us.

The national interest in the creative arts is in neutral gear at best, and is probably slipping into reverse. We seem to think that drawing, painting, sculpting, playing instruments, composing music, writing lyrics, singing, dancing, acting and writing are nice activities, but not essential.

It seems as if the accountability movement is moving the creative arts even further off stage. Band, orchestra, theater and dance always yield when money is needed for “real” academic investment. It’s never the other way around. Even worse is the pressure to invest in sports at the expense of the creative arts.

I’ve been tracking young people’s engagement in the creative life for many years. Such engagement is one of the 40 developmental assets that my colleagues and I at Search Institute have been advocating to be built into the fabric of youth development organizations, schools and community life. We have ample scientific evidence that such engagement enhances a range of learning styles, provides multiple avenues for developing creativity and imagination, and promotes academic achievement. Artistic practice and performance can yield many developmental advantages, including access to adult role models and the promotion of intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy.

However, the data on youth engagement in these activities is underwhelming. For our surveys of 6th- to 12th-graders in hundreds of school districts, engagement in creative activities is the least common of the developmental assets. Only 20 percent of the youths report spending three hours or more a week exploring art, music and drama.

Why make such a big deal out of this? Two recent efforts help to show why.

For the past several years, I’ve been exploring the nature of thriving during adolescence. “Thrive” is an active verb, meaning to prosper, to grow or develop vigorously, to flourish. Thriving is not an endpoint. It’s a process.

“Spark” is the central metaphor I use to understand the human process of thriving. Spark is an interest, talent or skill that animates one’s life, giving it energy and focus. When a spark is expressed, we feel alive and useful.

I’ve recently completed several national studies investigating how U.S. teenagers define their sparks, how those sparks get nourished or snuffed out, and the consequences of putting one’s spark into play. Nearly all teenagers get the concept of spark in the blink of an eye. They know if they’ve got it. They can easily see it when it’s there. About seven in 10 have one or more sparks.

But fewer than four in 10 have both a definable spark and adults who function as spark champions in their lives. Far and away the most common area of sparks for U.S. teenagers is the creative arts. Music, art, dance and writing are mentioned twice as often as sports.

It bears repeating: Among both boys and girls, the creative arts outpace athletics two to one.

You’d never know it by how our communities invest in youth.

That’s disturbing, because kids who have a both self-identified spark and adults who nurture that spark exhibit all of the outcomes our nation cares about. Being on a thriving path translates into higher grades, higher school attendance rates and better physical health, and enhances a sense of purpose, intrinsic motivation, social competence and caring for people and the planet.

This research dovetails beautifully with a set of ideas from Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brains Will Rule the Future. This new business book examines the competencies needed for success in what Pink calls the “Conceptual Age,” the stage that is quickly replacing the “Information Age.” The latter age needed linear thinkers: workers trained to excel in thinking that is sequential, literal and analytical. It’s the stuff that’s measured on the SAT.

The future, Pink argues, belongs to “right-brain” thinkers who can see patterns, see the big picture, play with ideas, synthesize, see connections and seek meaning as much as abundance. He makes a compelling case. The skills needed are not nurtured by drill and by tests that have right answers. They are nurtured by the opportunity to express, to create, to imagine, to play. The creative arts become our best tool for unleashing contextual thinkers.

Every kid has a creative spark. Find it, nurture it, celebrate it.