Stop bossing your kids around so much. Kids get bossed around from infancy to high school. And they need it. Usually. However, adults sometimes attempt to structure a child’s behavior so much they often stifle opportunities for creativity and discovery.

Typical school day of a kid

Parent: “Wake up!”

Kid: “…”

Parent: “Get dressed.”

Kid: “…”

Parent: “Get in the car.”

Kid: “…”

Parent: “Go to school.”

Kid: “…”

Teacher: “Get to class.”

Kid: “…”

Teacher: “Learn this topic.”

Kid: “…”

Teacher: “Go home.”

Kid: “…”

Parent: “How was school?”

Kid: “It was school…”

What happens

From the moment a kid wakes up, they’re trying to please someone. They’re being told what to do. How to do it. Where to do it. But they rarely get told why to do it other than “because I said so.”

Kids love recess. Teachers/parents love recess. Kids love it because they get to play games, run around, and socialize. Teachers and parents love it because the kids get to mind themselves for a bit. But they also love knowing their kids are engaged in healthy physical movement while learning many of life skills without even realizing it.

Kids learn cooperation, sharing, determination, strategy, and how to play by a common set of rules simply by playing basketball or four square at recess. They get to teach each other how to play games when someone doesn’t know the rules. They learn to ask questions. They learn to both verbally and non-verbally communicate.

Maybe most importantly, they learn to fail— and love it.

Embracing failure and loving it

They learn the rules of their games by trying–failing–trying–failing–and trying again. They’re not afraid of failure in this context. There’s a simple reason for this:

Recess comes without outright expectations and consequences. A a result, kids love to laugh at themselves messing up in a game… hitting a “brick” on the backboard or throwing the ball well short of first base.

They shrink when they make mistakes in the classroom. It’s because of the pressure teachers, parents, and other students put on them. Students need time to experiment. They need to try something. Mess it up. And try again. And they need to feel encouraged to keep trying.

Improvisation: the vehicle to discovery

In the music world, the best place for fostering this type of creativity is improvisation. In the world of improvisation, students start out shy or slightly afraid. They get sheepish and nervously laugh at themselves and others because they’re uncomfortable making mistakes in the band room that has always had such high standards of perfection.

Eventually, the giggles disappear and smiles and excitement follow. When students are given a world in which they can feel comfortable coming out of their shells to experience success and failure without the worry of punishment, they shine.

Students come in the band room early and stay late to pick up instruments they haven’t showed interested in before. And they play them. Sometimes completely unorthodoxly because they simply don’t know what to do. But this is where the fun begins. Students that DO know are quick to jump at the chance to show the other students the “right way” to play. And the student happily accepts this instruction. And they continue playing and experimenting.

Maybe it’s not the kids

I truly believe all students want to learn and have the capacity to do so. Teachers often mistake shortcomings as failures and chalk failure up to a lack of effort. In my experience, a student’s shortcomings are often made out of good conscience effort to succeed, but perhaps they need more time. And it’s important to humbly remind myself that a student’s inability to achieve is often a combination of the shortcomings of my teaching and my ability to create a safe space for students to discover.

Improvisation has become a pillar of my teaching method and students are loving it. And students love it because improvisation’s inherent lack of rules and correctness is a perfect breeding ground for discovery and creativity. And ultimately– success.