If Schools Kill Creativity, Can Toys Bring It Back to Life?

A new generation of companies are finding ways to emulate Lego and encourage creativity through play.

Legos are one of the most popular toys of all time. According to TED Fellow Ayah Bdeir, who delivered a speech at the famed conference in Long Beach, California this week, there are more than 400 billion of the little blocks in the world, or 75 for every person on earth. The brilliance of Legos is that they are not a single toy, but a platform for creation with nearly endless possibilities, making them one of the best teaching tools ever.

In an education world obsessed with curriculum standards and high-stakes testing, students are funneled onto particular tracks, rather than being allowed to choose their own adventures and explore their passions (a phenomenon that education expert Sir Ken Robinson says is killing creativity) But if the contemporary education model discourages kids' curiosity and creativity, a new generation of companies are finding ways to emulate Lego and encourage those traits through play.

LittleBits, the company Bdeir founded, manufacture a type of next-generation Lego that integrates electric circuits to give chidlren the ability to incorporate light and sound into their creations. Within their first several months on the toy scene, the kits have received a rapturous response, winning a STEMmy Award and being named "Best of Toy Fair 2012" and "Best High-Tech Maker Toy."

LittleBits aren't the only new creativity platform created by a TED fellow. A few years back, Bre Pettis and his friends wanted to experiment with 3D printing, which takes digital files and uses polymers to create three-dimensional objects, but there were no affordable devices on the market. They decided to hack their own together, and when it worked, they decided to turn the product into a company, MakerBot. Since then, the company has raised millions of dollars in venture capital and cultivated a community of makers who share their ideas and plans for 3D projects.

Like Legos, littleBits and MakerBot replicators can be educational, but they're fundamentally about playing. Play is about active engagement and experimentation with the world in a situation in which there is no clear "right" or "wrong," but a set of possibilities. It's a process of learning-by-doing driven not by an externally defined outcome, but about personal instinct, passion, and goal-setting.

It is not just children that need this type of play—they tend to do it without being told. Adults, on the other hand, inhabit a world in which "success" tends to have little to do with creative experimentation. This new infrastructure of play is not just a collection of interesting startups, but a broad entrepreneurial movement with the potential to restore the creativity that's been lost in too many schools.

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The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

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Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

RELATED: Bill and Melinda Gates had a surprising answer when asked about a 70 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans

"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

The poll found that concern for the environment isn't a partisan issue – or at least when it comes to younger generations. Two-thirds of Republicans under the age of 45 feel that addressing climate change is their duty, sentiments shared by only 38% of Republicans over the age of 45.

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