What's the No. 1 quality CEOs from around the world say is needed most to tackle the big challenges the world faces?

Creative thinking.

So how do we go about growing the next generation of innovators in the Twin Cities and across the state? How exactly are we supposed to prepare kids today to tackle the vexing problems of tomorrow in new ways?

Let them play.

When children spend time playing, they develop a host of important skills, such as creativity, critical thinking and confidence. They learn to analyze situations, form plans, understand what's being said, make adjustments and persist when things don't go right the first time.

Child's play is easy to overlook. It's common to hear play described as "just fun." In many quarters, playtime is viewed as a break from more important business: Playtime's over — time to get back to learning.

In many families, play gets squeezed by the demands of school, work, sports, lessons and other adult-led activities. The decline in playtime is an unmistakable trend. Consider:

•  Children play an average of eight hours less per week than kids in the 1980s, a report in 2008 found.

•  More than 80 percent of parents in the Twin Cities say they played more when they were kids than their own children do today, according to a recent Minnesota Children's Museum survey.

•  Schools nationwide have seen a trend toward cutting recess to make time for additional academic subjects, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

It has gotten to the point where Megan Gunnar, director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, calls what's happening the "war on play."

Crimping the time children spend exploring and experimenting stunts their creativity. A landmark 2011 study that analyzed four decades of creativity scores found that children — especially those in kindergarten through third grade — have become less creative over time. Among the culprits that Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary cited in her research was a corresponding decline in unstructured free play.

Perhaps play wouldn't get short shrift if we flipped our mind-set. Play and learning are not competitors. They are partners. When we talk about school readiness, the achievement gap and arming children with 21st-century skills, we also should be talking about the valuable role of play in shaping young minds and bodies.

Play is particularly powerful when the activity is open-ended and driven by a child's own interests. That is, when adults guide without taking over or step back entirely. And it's got to be fun. If a child is not having fun or doesn't want to be there, it's not play.

Encouraging this type of "powerful play" guided our redesign of the Minnesota Children's Museum in downtown St. Paul, which reopens Wednesday after a major expansion and renovation. In our 10 new exhibits, children get the time, space and freedom to explore and learn, without feeling like they need to do things a certain way or achieve a specific outcome.

For example, in the Forces at Play exhibit, visitors encounter tabletop stations where they build their own air-powered ball launchers. There are hoses and connectors around, but no directions. Kids and adults often don't know what to do at first. They need to start thinking. "What's my goal? What's my plan? What if my first try doesn't work?" That's creativity and critical thinking in action.

In Our World, children take on community roles, such as fire chief, store clerk, cook and postal worker, and then set about defining and solving the everyday problems those jobs entail. In The Studio, kids work with sewing machines, drills and other real tools. Their confidence grows on the spot.

Creativity, problem-solving, grit — these attributes get hard-wired into the brain through play.

Ultimately, elevating the importance of play liberates and reassures parents. You don't need special talents to carve out time for activities in which kids can follow their own interests, make a mess and try out different roles.

You mean, letting my kids tinker, explore and have fun is a great way to prepare them to succeed in high school, college and beyond?

Sign me up!

Dianne Krizan is president of the Minnesota Children's Museum.