The Natural Genius of Children

Every child is a genius. That doesn’t mean that every child can paint like Picasso, compose like Mozart, or score 150 on an I.Q. test. But every child is a genius according to the original meanings of the word “genius,” which are: “to give birth” (related to the word genesis) and “to be zestful or joyous,” (related to the word genial). Essentially, the real meaning of genius is to “give birth to the joy” that is within each child. Every child is born with that capacity. Each child comes into life with a wide range of incredible qualities.  Here are just twelve of them:

  • Curiosity – I was doing some shopping at a local Costco and waiting in line for the checkout, and in front of me were two three-year olds in a shopping basket and while all the adults around them were busy mulling over their purchases or who knows what, these kids were busy pointing at things all over the store and laughing and talking about them.  If kids weren’t so curious, we’d be extinct as a species.  It’s that curiosity that allows homo sapiens to adapt to an ever changing environment.  Einstein said ”never lose a holy curiosity.”  If you have to baby-proof the house or are bothered by all the questions your child asks, just remember that it’s this life-affirming quality of curiosity that makes the world go around!
  • Imagination – Einstein said ”the imagination is everything.”  He would visualize what he called ”thought experiments” and in this way changed the way we think about the universe.  Children are incredibly imaginative – many younger children even have what’s called ”eidetic” imagery.  They can see the inner world with as much clarity as outer perceptions (which is why their nightmares can be so terrifying).  Most kids have vivid imaginations that they externalize in their play behaviors (see below), and it enters into their art, the stories they spontaneously tell, and in their writing if they’ve reached that stage of linguistic development.  We have to resist the temptation to tell them ”why, that’s just nonsense!” and admire this ability, for it may well provide the foundation for a successful career as a designer, architect, engineer, creative artist, or scientist!
  • Playfulness –  Playfulness is one of the most amazing things that children do naturally.  When they play, they take things in the external environment (say, a cardboard box), and ”mix” them with the contents of their imagination (say, a journey to a far off star), and make something new (a cardboard rocket ship).  This ability to take ”what is” and combine it with ”what could be” is nothing short of a miracle:  it’s magic!  The problem is that nowadays, children have stopped playing in this unstructured, pretense-oriented, self-initiated way and their worlds are being overwhelmed by video games, video streaming, social media, and more.  This lost of the time to play could, I believe, undermine the entire civilization without our even being aware of it.  Children need time and space to play!
  • Creativity –  Children come into the world fresh and alive with their perceptions of a new world they’ve never seen before.  They haven’t created the mental pigeonholes and attitudes (”been there, done that”) that most adults have developed over time.  That allows them to make all sorts of creative connections between things that most adults have lost over time. We need to treasure this gift of creativity, of thinking of things in a way nobody ever thought of, and give kids plenty of resources for expressing that gift.  I don’t mean a ”creativity kit” but rather things like art supplies, science kits, musical instruments, and the like, and when kids start creating things that we don’t understand, we need to stop ourselves and be reminded that this act of creation is a deep reflection of the inner genius of the child.
  • Wonder – Children are always having ”first time” experiences (e.g. the first time they saw the rising sun, the first time they played with a dog, the first time they saw a flower bloom), and it’s highly likely that these times were times of ”wonder.”  That is, times when children felt a sense of awe toward the mysteries of the world, a sense of reverence almost.  It’s this unclouded sense of wonder that adds a deep level of meaning to their worlds.  Most of us have forgotten our ”first times” but if we search back to our own childhood, we may manage to recover some of these ”awesome” memories.  Scientists often talk of a similar state of wonder as they encounter the mysteries of the universe.  To that extent, children are like little scientists, approaching new things with, yes, anxiety perhaps, but also something that gives their encounters a similarity to the work of great artists, scientists, writers, and thinkers.
  • Inventiveness – You can think of this quality as the ”hands-on” dimension of creativity.  As kids get older and become familiar with using tools and working with materials, it’s often remarkable what they’re able to come up with using sheer inventiveness.  Most people don’t know that it was children that came up for a range of inventions including:  Christmas lights, popsicles, the trampoline, walkie talkies, and many children’s toys.  Sometimes the inventiveness takes a more social direction, as when, for example, a child figures out a way to get out of doing a homework assignment, or manages to set up a system to collect everybody’s soda cans to donate to a charity.  It’s the spontaneous nature of inventiveness that characterizes it; it doesn’t come from someone’s suggestion or assignment, but out of the wellsprings of genius in children.
  • Wisdom – If you consult many of the great sacred works of cultures historically, they’ll often be a reference to the wisdom of children (”except as ye become a child” – ”a child shall lead them” etc.).  This is a kind of innocent wisdom, different from the wisdom of elders in that it comes up unexpectedly and curiously, given the absence of any found of life experience to draw upon.  Children often have a ”sixth sense” and pick up on things that adults are blind to.  We need to appreciate this kind of wisdom, listen to it carefully, and help the child find ways of channeling their inner sage toward worthwhile endeavors.
  • Humor –  One thing that characterizes children is their sense of humor.  Everywhere you go, children are tittering and laughing among themselves about all sorts of things.  Adults usually regard such behavior as ”silliness” and put it down as a shortcoming of children’s failure to ”get serious” about life.  But even the gurus and sages of the world have a sense of humor about the most serious things, and many great individuals in history have used humor as a salve to heal their wounds as they engage in serious activities (one notable example is Einstein sticking his tongue out at the camera).  Instead of viewing children’s humor as an interruption, we should regard it instead as an enhancement of life, and value its genius-like qualities.
  • Vitality – The greatest natural resource in the world isn’t coal, or oil, or water, or solar.  It’s the vitality of the infant.  It’s this energy source that will drive the growth of civilization as the little child grows up.  One is reminded of that inventive genius Thomas Edison, who worked almost non-stop 24/7 with short breaks for catnaps.  Sadly, all too often today the child’s vitality gets labeled as ”hyperactivity” and medicated into submission.  The truth is that vitality simply needs things to be vital about, so it’s not just wayward energy.  So it’s very important to provide a rich interactive environment for children to grow up in so that vitality may be preserved.
  • Sensitivity –  Children are amazingly sensitive to both the inner and the outer environment, smelling things that no one else can smell, seeing details that others miss, feeling feelings that others have repressed.  And sensitivity is a double-edged sword – it can be uncomfortable to oneself and others (”don’t be so sensitive!”), but it can also open up a range of rich experiences that make life worth living.  One can look at the art work of the great genius artists, for example, and see the aspects of color, light, form, and line that most of us shield out of our awareness.  So, it’s important to protect the child from the negative repercussions of their sensitivity when possible, but also to create a safe environment within which their super-sensitivity can optimally function.
  • Flexibility – Doctors often talk about arteriosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries, as a common health problem in society, but few people mention another health problem that may be even more serious as we grow up:  psychosclerosis, the hardening of the mind.  The young children don’t have this problem, their thought flit and zip from one idea to the next without any obvious logical connections. But it’s having mental flexibility that means we’ve got a fully functioning brain (and conversely, the lack of mental flexibility is seen as a warning sign of dementia as we get older).  Mental flexibility allows for the possibility of new solutions to problems that have previously been seen to be intractable.  Let’s honor this flexibility of children and see it as an important part of their inner genius.
  • Joy – This twelfth quality really brings us back to the original meaning of the word ”genius” which is to ”give birth (genesis) to the joy (geniality) of learning.”  If there is to be any definitive advice to give parents and teachers in raising or educating children, is should be to not allow them to lose this innate joy of learning.  But how often do we give children the time and space to be joyful in their learning?  With all the admonitions and limits and chores and homework and schedules and goals, there is all too often little time for kids to be who they really are:  joyful human beings who optimally need to be engaged in active play and work situations.

The Theoretical Basis of the Child’s Genius.  One has simply to look at how the brain develops to get a sense of why the child possesses the brain of a genius. An infant has twice as many brain connections as an adult, and the young brain continues to build new brain connections as they grow. The young child masters a complex symbol system (their own native language) without any formal instructions.

Young children have brains that support vivid imaginations, creative minds, and sensitive personalities. These youthful traits are also highly valued from an evolutionary perspective: the more species evolve, the more they carry youthful traits into adulthood (a process called “neoteny” or “holding youth”). It is imperative that we, as educators and parents, help preserve these genius characteristics of children as they mature into adulthood, so those capacities can be made available to the broader culture at a time of incredible change.

Unfortunately, there are strong forces working at home, in the schools, and within the broader culture, to stifle these genius qualities in children. Many children grow up in homes which put an active damper on the qualities of genius. Factors in the home like poverty, depression and anxiety, pressure on kids to grow up too soon, and rigid ideologies based on hate and fear, actively subdue the qualities of genius in childhood such as playfulness, creativity, and wonder. Schools also put a damper on childhood genius through testing (creativity can’t thrive in an atmosphere of judgment), labeling of kids as learning disabled or ADHD, boring teachers, and regimented curriculum. Finally, the broader culture, especially mass media, represses the genius in our children through its constant onslaught of violence, mediocrity, overstimulation, and repugnant role models.

The good news is that there is much that a teacher or parent can do to help children reawaken their natural genius.

  • First, and most importantly, adults need to reawaken their own natural genius—find within themselves the source waters of their own creativity, vitality, playfulness, and wonder. For when children are surrounded by curious and creative adults, they have their own inner genius sparked into action.
  • Second, adults need to provide simple activities to activate the genius of children. Something as simple as a story, a toy (Einstein said that a simple magnetic compass awakened his desire to figure out how the universe worked at the age of four), a visit to a special place, or a question, can unlock the gates to a child’s love of learning.
  • Third, create a “genial” atmosphere at home or school, where kids can learn in a climate free from criticism, comparison, and pressure to succeed. Treat each child as a unique gift from God capable of doing wonderful things in the world .
  • Finally, understand that each child will be a genius in a totally different way from another child. Forget the standard I.Q. meaning of genius, and use models like the theory of multiple intelligences to help kids succeed on their own terms.

By following these simple guidelines for awakening each child’s natural genius, you will be contributing immensely to the welfare of your children and to the world they will inherit someday.

For further information about cultivating the genius of kids in school, see my books Awakening Genius in the Classroom, and  If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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