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Study finds emphasis on art, crafts, rather than tests, explain high level of creativity in Iceland

By Staff

  • Nature not a factor The landscape is not a major factor contributing to the innovation or creativity of Icelandic society. Photo/Vilhelm

A new study by researchers at the University of Kansas suggests that the reasons for the high level of innovation and creativity in Icelandic society is to be found in parenting which encourages free play, open and egalitarian families, emphasis on creativity, arts and crafts in schools and government support for culture, arts and innovation. The natural environment, which many foreign visitors assume must be a major contributing factor, plays little role, the study concluded.

A creative society
By many international measures, Iceland is a leading nation in innovation and creativity in a number of fields, including design, music, art and literature. For a country of just 340,000 people Iceland has produced a remarkable number of internationally known artists, scientists and successful entrepreneurs. Among the questions the study wanted to address was why "one in 10 adults in the country have published a book, why playing in a band is considered a rite of passage and why nearly everyone knows how to knit and sew."

Read more: NYT explores the Icelandic literary tradition as the annual “Christmas book-flood” begins

Bækur, books, bókabúð

Bookstore in Reykjavík Icelanders are a nation of writers and readers. Photo/GVA

A University of Kansas research team has published an article examining what factors lead the small island nation to be so creative and to examine if any of the factors in their education system can be adopted in the United States.The study was led by Barbara Kerr, who is a professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Kansas. The study included a thorough review of the literature on creativity and interviews with Icelanders who work in the creative industry.

Nature and the landscape not factors

Among the findings was that Icelanders don’t necessarily view themselves or their society as more creative than others and strongly dislike the popular assertion that their unique natural environment is the source of creative inspiration. Among the explanations for creativity were open and egalitarian families, innovation education curricula and free play, cultural support for creativity, and government policies. 

Esjan, Esja

Mt. Esja The horizon around Reykjavík is dominated by mountains and sea. Photo/GVA

The study argues that public effort to introduce innovation education, into school curriculums more than 20 years ago has encouraged creativity. Since the early 20th century all children in Icelandic schools learn to use tools, how to build and create all manner of products and more. Woodwork, sewing, knitting and cooking are taught from young age in elementary school.

Such practices are on the decline in the United States, the researchers note, where more attention is increasingly paid to testing. Icelanders test little, do not have IQ tests in school and focus instead on learning and applying skills in all areas of the curriculum.

“I’d say what that sort of education develops is creative self-efficacy,” Kerr, the lead researcher notes. 

Strong family values
Research and Icelanders also agree on their open culture and supportive family lives being key to fostering creativity. While a majority of children are born out of wedlock cultural ideas on child-raising are strict. Mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles and community members are all involved in child-raising. 

Read more: Study: Ease of communication between Icelandic children and their parents among the greatest in the world

Government support for families is also identified as an important factor in fostering skills, creativity and innovation in children. The government provides free child care, allowing parents to work and create while their children are encouraged to take part in free play. The culture, the researchers note, also celebrates differences, gender equality and human rights. 

Read more: Iceland ranked as most gender equal country in world for the 9th consecutive year

The cityscape as a factor

Murals Reykjavík city has teamed up with businesses and homeowners to brighten the city with street art. Photo/Jón Kaldal

While the idea of nature being a strong inspiration is disliked by Icelanders, the study argues that the built environment is commonly cited as being key. Makerspaces in Reykjavík, where creative people can work together, coffee shops, art galleries and musical venues help support creativity. Public art, both street commissioned by the city, as well as artworks by established artists, help create an environment of creativity.

Being a small country also has its advantages
The small size of Iceland is also cited as a strength. It makes it easier for creative people to get noticed and find others to collaborate with. Young musicians, filmmakers and artists can be quickly discovered.

“Creative kids here in the United States tend to be looked at as a problem. But there, the idea of encouraging their children to be different is very common,” Kerr said. “And they’re not afraid of their child being different.”

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