At age 11, the week before graduating from elementary school into junior high school, I took a last walk around the school. I remember clearly counting on my fingers how many years of mandatory school that lay ahead of me. I wondered if I’d make it.

Instinctively I knew I’d be trading safe and nurturing classrooms for sprints to many classrooms, heavy books, peer pressure, boyfriends and hormonal changes. The last two were enough to keep me going, but overall, school never held my interest for more than a nanosecond.

Later in middle school when given a multi-answer test, I would get the urge to explain to my teacher why several answers could apply. Oy, those last six years of mandatory education were excruciating.

I’m not sure if it’s comforting, but I find out I’m not alone.

Donald Treffinger, a leading theorist in the field of creativity, believes that for many children, a major source of criticism and a barrier to self is “right answer fixation.” That is when children are criticized for ideas that are out of the ordinary or different.

Let’s face it. We live in a world of standardized tests, where there is only one “right” answer. Umm … sounds like Washington. I apologize. I won’t go there.

I find out that this so-called “right answer fixation” ultimately leads children to take fewer risks — creative risks, out-of-the-box thinking, innovative reasoning. Their ability to produce a solution suffers.

They begin to excel at becoming and staying stuck in one lane. And one-lane living for the creative person is a slow death — a long, dark depression or free-floating anxiety at the least.

With budget cuts, overloaded classrooms, overworked parents and underappreciated teachers, I applaud anyone and everyone involved in educating today’s children. I realize that the thought of adding something new can be overwhelming, but there are many inventive ideas that support creative thinking — and are easy to initiate.

Here are suggested steps from creative innovators and educators:

» 1. Love & Listen: Sounds strange? Peter Reynolds, a best-selling author and advocate for “off the path” learners, says, “The most powerful tool we have to help students realize their true potential is love.” He suggests that through the “humanly exquisite act of listening” we can change a life — even save a life.

» 2. Leadership: Reynolds believes that connection is the key to cultivating creativity. We need “brave leaders who can invent the future with their staff and with the next generation.” Those who dare to go beyond the bounds of convention.

» 3. Environment: Create an open-minded environment. Allow and teach kids how to listen to others and to themselves, exploring new ideas and possibilities that lead to problem solving.

» 4. Adapt: Chris Matier, a writer and specialist in education, suggests adapting to students’ ideas rather teaching that there is only one way — yours!

» 5. Non-judgmental: “Accept unusual ideas from your students by suspending judgment of their divergent problem-solving,” Matier says.

» 6. Humor: Creativity and humor are linked. Encourage it. Humor loosens the hold of the intellect, which can restrict playfulness and out-of-the-box thinking.

The education we give our kids today can’t possibly anticipate the information and skills they’ll need years down the road. But as educator and creativity expert Ken Robinson points out, “If they have the tools to be creative and to innovate, they will have a much better chance of succeeding no matter how the world changes.”

Every child is naturally creative. Let’s keep it that way.

Susan Ann Darley is a creativity coach and writer who works with artists, creatives and entrepreneurs to discover, use and market their talents. She offers a free 30-minute coaching session. Follow her on Twitter: @Coach7700. For more information, click here, e-mail her at or call 805.845.3036.