11/04/2014 12:11 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

"Don't Play with Your Food" and Other Offenses

When I was a kid I knew three rules as absolute: 1) You always ask before petting a strange dog, 2) you treat others how you want to be treated, and 3) you don't play with your food. Of these, I can appreciate the first two, but will never understand the third.

Children are trained to suppress creative expression from an early age. We learn that there lies a clear distinction between right and wrong. On the playground, it is right to sit on a seesaw, but wrong to walk across it. The square peg goes in the square hole, not the round one. It's good to be polite, and it's bad to play with food because that's not what food is meant for.

The reasons that we teach these rules -- that we celebrate one answer and condemn the rest -- are not clear to me. One thing is for certain, though: norms are taught and the line between right and wrong gets more defined every day.

This trend is nowhere more evident than in the classroom. In second grade, I was introduced for the first of many times to a pervasive concept that I'm sure has managed to wheedle its way into your life as well: the five-paragraph essay. My teacher likened this paper-writing technique to a plane ride. You take off with an introduction, stay level in the sky with three body paragraphs, and land with a conclusion. Like most children, I was impressionable and eager to please, so I took her lesson to heart. In the years to come, I never thought about how to structure my essays, because I knew the right way to do it: intro, support, conclusion.

It's true that in many situations the plane-ride format could make for a successful paper. In some cases, though, jumping straight into a narrative could be really effective by building suspense. Or maybe incorporating lots of bullets instead of three paragraphs would make the thesis more digestible. To be sure, one could argue that it's good to teach a general guideline before getting too fancy, since generalization is less confusing and likely to work out anyway. But I disagree.

The human desire to be right will compel us to follow authority instructions -- like writing three body paragraphs -- until they become so second nature that we stop thinking actively about what to do. Embarrassingly enough, all of my essays were of the five-paragraph variety until tenth grade, when a teacher reclassified the style as wrong. Then, of course, I had to adapt to please him.

This creative suppression is not plaguing English classes alone. It finds its way into math lessons, where there is only one right way to solve a problem; into history textbooks, where potentially biased facts are to be accepted indiscriminately; into art, where skies are to be colored blue and houses must be squares; and into life beyond the classroom.

I could once amuse myself for hours on end by playing with my stuffed animal lion, Leo, who governed a small town whose residents included my Valentine's Day edition beanie baby Smooch, my dolphin Dolly, and my yellow blanket DT. Now, I couldn't entertain that plot for a minute. Animals don't practice bureaucracy. And dolphins and lions don't interact. And blankets definitely aren't conscious. And Leo would eat Smooch. And it just doesn't make any sense!

It might seem trivial to complain that my aptitude for fabricating seemingly impossible scenarios has diminished over time, but it reflects the reality that I am not the innovator that my generation needs me to be. And the really scary thing is that I'm not alone. In 1968, psychologist George Land began a study, in which he asked 1,600 5-year-olds to write down all the uses they could think of for a paperclip. 98 percent scored within the "genius" range. They thought of at least 200 uses. When he retested the same children 5 years later, only 30 percent of students maintained this status. In another 5 years, only 12 percent did.

The implications of this lost ability are huge. We've yet to find the cure for cancer, the solution to world hunger, or a viable alternative to the country's failed prison system. The world is messed up and it is our job as civically responsible people to help make it better. No matter whether we become cancer researchers, agricultural engineers, or policy makers, we will need creativity because traditional methods for solving problems have yet to give us answers. But, because of the education system in which we grew up, we're scared and unable to think outside of the proverbial box.

But this phenomenon isn't inevitable. As parents, teachers, older siblings, pediatricians, and fellow human beings, we have the power to effect change among youth. I am an aspiring educator, so I need to impress upon the kids I will teach that there is creativity everywhere, among all subjects. In math, a notoriously objective field, children must understand that there is always another way to solve a problem (you don't need to carry the 4 to solve 18x5). In language classes, you can express one sentiment using two entirely different sets of words ("¿Dondé está el supermercado? and "Tengo que comparer abarrotes" both will suffice in getting you directions to the supermarket.)

We deviate less and less in our thinking with our increasing age -- there's no doubt about it. But I'm also confident that the power to mitigate this trend rests in our hands. By celebrating creative expression, practicing it ourselves, and biting our tongues when we get the urge to say, "that's not how you do that," children will feel freer to create. So do us all a favor and play with your food! Think outside the box, because the world needs more mashed-potato volcanoes and bologna snowflakes.