Smithsonian Study on the Childhood Pattern of Genius, Part 1
by Laurie White

Back in the early 90’s, my husband and I were still undecided on whether to homeschool our three children when we heard what became for us a pivotal radio show. It was James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” and Dobson was interviewing Dr. Raymond Moore, an educator and a pioneer in the homeschooling movement. Dr. Moore cited an article entitled “The Childhood Pattern of Genius” published in 1960 in Horizon, the journal for the Smithsonian Institute.1 The article presented a three-part pattern that had emerged from studying the childhood lives of twenty geniuses. The three common elements were these:

1.    They were given a maximum amount of free time to spend exploring, and very few places or things in the house were off limits (from banging on the piano to hammers and nails).
2.    They had highly responsive parents who spent time answering any questions they had or helping them find the answers.
3.    They spent a minimum amount of time with people their own age.

My husband and I were intrigued by each of these elements, but we were completely blown away by number 3. I will explore these elements in the same order as above starting with number one in this article, followed by two and three in my posts for Feb. and March respectively.

Genius Factor #1: Free Time to Explore

Unstructured, free time for children of our culture is dwindling in popularity. It too often loses out to organized activities and structured classes in gym, ballet, t-ball, art, you name it. Sandlot baseball has fallen by the wayside. Today’s little ones are often leading highly scheduled lives and, to top it off, when they have some free time, they unfortunately have a button they can push which brings automatic entertainment. Never has a group of children been so completely entertained as this generation. Neil Postman writes in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death about the insidious effects of TV on our society, and he was writing before the great deluge of electronic devices and games which we have now.

Unplugging the Kids

Oh, you may say, but my child only watches educational TV. But Postman quotes a study of a group of children divided into three classes: one class watched a videotaped lesson on TV about whales, the second class heard only the audio to the same lesson, and the third simply read it. The classes were later tested for recall and comprehension. It was the class that read the lesson who remembered and understood it best. Though the TV program, at first glance, might seem to engage the child’s thinking on more sensory levels, it was shown that TV viewing is more passive. Reading, on the other hand, demands that the reader form his or her own  mental pictures, filling in the sounds and sights with imagination. Educators think that the greater demand placed upon the reader (in comparison to a TV viewer) calls forth a deeper engagement with the information being communicated.

Planned Boredom

Today, we are trading in both reading and real life experiences for being passively entertained. Children aren’t catching fireflies as often as they used to. They know what the African wildebeest looks like on TV, but have never spotted a rabbit in their own backyard. We need to unplug the kids and let them get bored enough to invent their own fun. Creative juices just don’t flow until there’s nothing else to do. If they can flip a switch and get instant boredom relief, they won’t ever think hard enough to invent their own game, their own project, their own fun. TV and all electronic games give them instantaneous relief from the age-old question of, “What can I do?” But relief is so short lived! When the show or video game is over, what do they have? They have not made a small loom with nails and woven a hairband, nailed a rabbit-box together, built a Lego spaceship, helped bake a cake, written a poem on how bored they are (which the whole family quotes years later), drawn a cat, watched Dad work in the basement, learned a new guitar chord, hoed the garden, played fetch with the dog, climbed a tree, read a book, done their chores, piddled on their next 4-H project, watched the sun set, or caught that firefly.

I have two daughters and a son. My oldest daughter majored in film and works now in wardrobe in the film industry in Atlanta where she has worked on movies such as Hunger Games. My second daughter, Hetty, works as a film editor for music videos in Nashville, and my son who majored in both piano performance and in computer tech, works in New York City as a software engineer. All three have taken creative pathways, but because two of them work specifically with video/film production, I sometimes joke that we watched lots of movies while they were growing up. But the truth is really that I kept the TV turned off during the day, and when they got bored enough, they got creative. They would create a new game or a new outdoor activity, read or play a musical instrument of some variety, but only if electronic options were not allowed. They started writing their own scripts and making their own movies as soon as we got our first camcorder. I’m convinced that it takes a certain amount of planned boredom before kids will get productive and creative.

One of the great things about homeschooling is that it lends itself to greater blocks of free time for the child. Most homeschoolers get through around lunchtime or soon after, especially in the younger grades. Then except for chores, they have that “free time to explore,” which they tend to do if, that is, the electronic instant-boredom-relievers remain off. And the exploring is at home, the seedbed of creativity for the child, where all his “things” are, where he feels secure, and where he can ask any question.
1 I was unable to find the actual 1960 article from Horizon, but the study was headed by Harold G. McCurdy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an article by McCurdy on the topic of this study appears online in the Journal of the North Carolina Academy of Science. Click the link, then scroll down a few paragraphs and you’ll see the article.
Laurie White is an author, teacher, and mom to three kids who were homeschooled k-12. She writes books and other supplemental materials for homeschoolers including her popular and award-winning King Alfred’s English which combines history and English in a highly entertaining format for grades 7 and above. For more info and access to Laurie's free downloads go to