Fourth Grade Slump: Why 9 year olds become less creative temporarily
Most people would agree that children are naturally more creative than adults.
After all, there is evidence that creativity falls steadily as we get older.
However, did you know that there is a time period at school when many children may also become temporarily less creative?
It was first discovered by influential creativity researcher Paul Torrance in 1968, where he found that a large proportion (but not all) children experience a decrease in their divergent thinking scores beginning around the age of 9-10, which is when in the USA many students are in the fourth grade.
This slump may last for a few years, before improving again a few years later.
The fourth grade slump is not universal, or happen at the same time for everyone. In some cases, no fourth grade slump is found overall in groups of children, such as no slump found in children from India. While in other groups, such as a large study from Chinese students and a meta-analysis covering a total of over 40,000 students found that the biggest average slump was actually around Grade 7, when children were in puberty.
However, what I find most interesting is what is happening to children at these ages, and how this may impact their creativity.
According to Mark Runco’s analysis in his book Creativity: Theories and Themes: Research, Development, and Practice, at this age if you were to look at creative output of children you would notice a distinct change in the look and content.
If you look at art from a child before the age of 9, it is likely to be very abstract and disproportionate. You would likely be able to recognise objects but they would not look “realistic”.
Then, as children become older and especially around the ages of 9-10 and puberty, they begin to enter what psychologists call a conventional stage of development. This happens partially as childrens’ prefrontal cortex continues to develop through childhood, and their brain becomes more aware of reality, risks and rational thought.
In a conventional stage, children become significantly more aware of social ‘conventions’ around them. They seek to understand what is normal and accepted in their society, because as humans are a social species, there is safety in fitting in. This brings us security.
Many children beginning around age 9, but especially during puberty, may exhibit hyperconventionality, when they want to fit in with “what my friends are doing”.
As a result, if you look at art produced by children going through this stage, you will often notice that the art begins to look more realistic.
Proportions, structure, colours etc will look more like a photograph than art the same child may have produced a few years earlier.
While the skill required to produce the more realistic art may be impressive, and may make teachers and parents think of the child as having artistic talent and therefore being creative, the art itself is likely to be less original since it wants to “fit in” with reality more.
As Runco notes:
At this age children’s art becomes highly representational, more conventional, less original
This may change again as the child often comes out of the slump slightly around grade 9.
But it is fascinating to think that it is not just pressure from teachers and parents to be less creative at school.
The biology of the child’s developing brain is likely to make them want to fit in and stand out less, and as a result act less original and be less creative.
It is a combination of nature and nurture that results in people losing their creativity as they get older.