The creative ladder

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(Development Games)


Translated by Aleksey Nikitin & Guy Braithwaite

Copyright Aleksey Nikitin 1993




The origin and development of the creative abilities of children remain only partly understood. One of Boris Nikitin’s first published work, “The Gifted Child: Not a Gift of Nature”, dealt with the theoretical side of the nurture of highly independent minds. Not surprisingly, this proved unacceptable to the Soviet regime and subsequently the Nikitin family had an uneasy relationship with the authorities, almost amounting to proscription. The offending book, like “The Creative Ladder”, was very popular in Germany and Japan. It is suggestive of Russian misconceptions about the West that when Boris Nikitin’s wife met the German and Japanese translators of the book she was surprised to find that they talked of the same problems of restrictive education: she had thought that such problems were confined to the USSR. If we learn only one thing from Boris Nikitin, then, let it be this: we must not be complacent about our children’s education.

This is an abridgement of a book which was written in Russia in 1973 but was not published for several years. A shortened version under the same title was published in booklet form in 1976 as a supplement to a magazine.

Due to political circumstances in the USSR, publication of the full text was still held up. However, a full version appeared in Cologne in 1980. The censored first edition was issued in Moscow in 1981, where it was well received by parents and by the unofficial family clubs which were springing up to promote a more independent approach to education. In spite of its popularity and the limited print-run of the first edition, it was four years before the second edition appeared. Again, too few copies were available so manuscript copies began to circulate. The author received many letters requesting a new edition in expanded form and in many more copies.

The book’s popularity grew quickly, both within Russia and abroad. It was published in Japan in 1986. Like the German translation, this Japanese version included the chapter “A Bit of Theory” which would not then have been countenanced by the Soviet regime. Finally, this full version with some new material was published in Moscow in 1991 as the third edition. Many new tasks were added to the Multicube section, mostly to the more difficult end of the sequence. In all, the number of tasks was roughly doubled. An important addition was a set of games which applied more directly to a child’s-eye view of the world.

In this abridgement of the book, we have attempted to give an outline of the theory behind Development Games, as well as an explanation of the method of play. We hope to bring out a complete version, with the full sequence of tasks and games, in the near future. We use the pronoun “he” to denote “the child” wherever gender is unspecified, since we assume that no reader will be so pedantic as to think that we do not include girls. Similarly, where we use the terms “parent” or “parents” we do so for simplicity’s sake and not to exclude grandparents, uncles, aunts, elder brothers and sisters and friends from the role of helping to bring up children.


Boris Nikitin was born in 1916 into a Cossack family in the Northern Caucasus region of what was then the Russian Empire. His father ran a chemist’s shop. Boris graduated in engineering from the local Polytechnic Institute and in 1941 he completed his training as an aircraft engineer at a Military Academy. He served in the armed forces from 1941, when the Soviet Union entered the war against Germany, until the mid-1950s. His first educational research was done “on the job” whilst training pilots during the war years. This was a crucial job, since lives depended on the pilots learning quickly and thoroughly; and Boris found that he was an effective teacher. He was also becoming increasingly interested in the assessment and measurement of educational performance and improvement.

In the mid-1950s, after demobilisation, Boris was one of a small group of enthusiastic and unorthodox teachers who planned to found an independent school. This brave project proved impossible because the State would not tolerate any institution outside its control. Boris and many of his colleagues lost their jobs and were blacklisted from posts of any professional status. One of their number, a war hero, was so disillusioned that he committed suicide. For Boris Nikitin, it was a formative period, during which he met his future wife and decided to pursue his ideas about education in a smaller sphere: that of the family.

Boris met Lena in December 1957 at an Educational Conference which they both found so boring that they went to a cafe instead. Fourteen years his junior, Lena was the daughter of an engineer and a maths teacher. She had followed her mother into the teaching profession, graduating in languages and literature. However after two years’ experience in a school, she had become frustrated with the educational system and had left to become a librarian. Deeply impressed by Boris’ ideas, she helped him apply them to the upbringing of their seven children. State interference had put a stop to the plan for an experimental school but it could not control the home life of a young family.

Aleksey, their first child, was born in 1959; Antony, their second, in 1960. Their early development was described in Boris and Lena’s first book, “Are we on the Right Track?”, published in 1962. It was a fresh insight into children’s development based on totally novel propositions which may have crossed official educational guidelines but made no reference to political ideology. So extraordinary were the ideas expressed in the book that it sold out in a matter of weeks. The public were starved of such reading despite the thaw since the death of Stalin. However, the very success of the book caused its downfall with officialdom. The sense of freedom which pervaded the book and which had contributed to its popularity posed a challenge, albeit indirect, both to the educational and, more ominously, to the medical establishments. The Nikitins were unprepared for the subsequent furore and for the trouble it brought to their door. In the long dispute with the monoliths of Communist medicine and education which ensued, they became figures of some celebrity, somewhere between the die-hard academic dissidents and the distinguished scientists and sociologists who supported and applauded their work despite its unorthodoxy.

To begin with, the second edition of the book was banned and Boris lost his job as researcher at the Academy of Pedagogic Science. He found a job as a schoolteacher. Meanwhile, his two little sons and their sister Olga, born in 1962, were subjected to an elaborate series of tests by the medical authorities. Aleksey remembers the pointed questions designed to make him incriminate his parents. Try as they might, the doctors could find nothing wrong with the three children, apart from below-average weight. Nevertheless, they filed a damning and also completely falsified report which appeared in a sensational form in the press under the headline “Be careful with childhood”. The Nikitins were accused of being irresponsible parents who conducted dangerous experiments on their children by journalists who had not even met them. The allegations might have led to prosecution had the courts given any credence to the “evidence” in the report. The public drew their own conclusions and the Nikitins began to receive many visits and supportive letters. During the following decade four more children were born: Ann in 1964, Julia in 1966, Ivan in 1969 and Lubov in 1971. The Nikitins’ income of 200 Roubles per month had to suffice for a family of nine at a time when the state recommended at least 50 Roubles per month per person for subsistence. Both the parents worked and continued their research, perfecting the Development Games. Theories were verified, ideas improved. Much of the work was made possible by unofficial support from around the country: gifts of money and clothes and messages of moral support. The Nikitins’ work attracted the attention of many important thinkers in the educational and scientific fields, most notably the child-physiologist Professor Ilya Arshavsky, whose private laboratory provided independent confirmation of some of Boris’ results. Also crucial was the tacit support of the elite Physics Research Institute at Novosibirsk. The Nikitins’ house became an unofficial research laboratory, attracting 1500 visitors and over a thousand letters every year, as well as being a home for seven children who, meanwhile, all excelled at school and college.

In 1980 Boris and Lena at last had some books published in the West where they could hope for a less prejudiced reception and perhaps some royalties. The books were popular and began to produce a healthy income, although the Soviet government levied a special tax of up to 80% on it. How Ironic that the State should profit so much from books they disapproved of! More works written years before by Boris or by Boris and Lena began to appear in print having previously only circulated in manuscript or in unofficial print runs. These officially published works were heavily censored but they still sold out in hundreds of thousands of copies. Library copies usually disappeared!

The most popular title, both in the USSR and abroad, was “We and Our Children”. It was translated into German and Japanese. The book is not prescriptive or didactic like other works in this field. It is more like a free conversation, sharing the accumulated experience of bringing up seven children with a sympathetic listener, and providing a fascinating insight into the development of healthy and clever youngsters. It includes a preface by a famous Ukrainian cardiosurgeon, Nikolai Amosov, who found that the children had reserves of health beyond the norm. He wrote that the doctors who had described the Nikitin children as underdeveloped back in 1962 had never seen a healthy child! Moreover, the children, he said, displayed an intellectual standard way above average. None of them was a genius, but all had found school untaxing to the extent that they skipped a few years. Owing to the rigidity of the Soviet education system, this caused the children a few problems, since their schooling never instilled a disciplined approach to learning.

Those early medical tests on the Nikitin children had predicted a very unhealthy future. Thirty years on, they all enjoy good health, and have excellent minds. Wherever they go in the CIS they are recognised as Boris Nikitin’s “experiments”! All over the countries of the former Soviet Union, parents know about Nikitin’s ideas, either through his published writings or through one of the many Nikitin Clubs which formed during the 1970s to unite thousands of parents who took an active interest in the healthy development of their children despite the illegality of such associations and the strong opposition of the medical and educational authorities to these ideas. Despite the lifting of the ban on publishing the books and the great changes in the country since 1989 Boris Nikitin has received no official recognition or honour, nor anything more than a pittance for the millions of copies of his books sold in the Soviet Union for the profit of the state. Indeed, it is only recently that a publisher has come forward to issue a collected edition of his works, even though all previous editions, amounting to several million copies, always sold out within a few weeks, sometimes days, of publication. This enduring popularity is suggestive of a widespread concern about the challenges of parenthood that are as acute today as they were in 1959 when Boris and Lena started their family. They thought at first that the problems they addressed were peculiar to the Soviet Union. It is clear now that these issues cross geographical as well as ideological boundaries and characterise something fundamental to the relationship between parents and children everywhere in the modern world.

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