Cultivating Creativity in Children
In many ways, cultivating creativity in a child is like cultivating plants in a garden. The right environment releases the potential that inherently exists. The potential for creativity is present in all children, and in all humans in fact. In this article we explore why creativity matters and how parents can nurture creativity in their children.
Creativity can take endless forms. However, there are two agreed-upon elements that must be present: novelty, which is something unlike what has been seen or known before and usefulness. Does the second surprise you?
The proverbial ‘better mousetrap’ is generated from creativity and is clearly useful. But if your child creates an original piece of art, spontaneously uses a toy banana as a phone, or even comes up with a clever joke and this is enjoyed by he/she and by others, that enjoyment serves just as useful a purpose at that moment.
There is a long-term benefit as well. These kinds of activities serve as practice for creativity that will be used when our children are adults, like building that better mouse trap and all the other millions of ways that human beings collectively have ensured we not just survived, but flourished as a species(1).
Unfortunately, there has been an ongoing decrease in original thinking in children(2). It is so pervasive it even has a name-the “fourth grade slump”. Around 9 to 10 years of age, the beginning of being a ‘tween’, kids begin to conform to their peer group. They want to fit in and so move away from ideas and behaviors that might peg them as different. Additionally, with the increasing focus of U.S. schools on high-stakes standardized testing as a call for accountability, instruction is more about rote memorization and much less about original, innovative thinking.
Parents, that’s where you come in!
The great news is that in a safe, accepting environment, away from the pressures of social norms from peers and grades and test scores from school, children and teens will embrace the opportunities you give them to be creative.
That said, there are some definite rules-of-thumb that will help you create such an environment. Let’s take a look at these:
1. Be a facilitator, not a director.
In essence, this means allowing the experience to be primarily child-led. You promote creativity when you serve to follow a child’s requests, pose open-ended questions, rephrase thoughts, and assist just enough to bridge gaps in knowledge and skill.
Case in point is research showing that when adults tell kids they are going to “show” them how to use a new toy, children interact with the toy less and show less interest than when an adult introduces a toy to a child in the context of wondering how it works, and then allowing the child to explore with them(2).
2. Focus on the process, not the product.
Adults do have a tendency to think about the end result of an activity, but to really cultivate creativity means allowing and encouraging your child during the process. If you have an hour and a project isn’t finished, being okay with that is important.
Even more important is to suspend judgment about the choices your child is making. A sky doesn’t have to be blue, a poem doesn’t have to perfectly rhyme, the pattern of beads on home-made jewelry doesn’t have to be symmetrical for these to all be beautiful and valued. With that in mind, if you can, avoid buying pre-made kits. While they “look” like fun, they actually hamper creativity because the kit is almost always designed to culminate in a certain outcome. Rather, if you like the idea, buy some of the materials separately by visiting your local arts & crafts store in person or online.
3. Teach critical thinking.
A fascinating phenomenon in being creative is the necessary role of both divergent and convergent thinking(3). Divergent thinking involves coming up with lots of ideas or solutions without worrying too much if they will work. Then convergent thinking is needed to critically evaluate, usually by trying out those ideas or solutions, until the one that is desired is found.
Let’s say your child wants to build a pillow fort and wants to bring a huge assortment of cushions and pillows to the effort without too much regard for if they will be suitable. That’s divergent thinking. As she/he begins using the various cushions and pillows, they will begin to discard some, keep others, switch some out, change their position, etc. until the fort is successfully up and to their liking. That’s convergent thinking. When both types of thinking are employed, the chance for true creativity is boosted.
Sowing the seeds of your child’s creativity in a garden where the soil is well-prepared, the fledgling efforts are protected, and the harvest enjoyed will reap benefits for your child, for you, and for our global society…and there will be much joy and fun along the way!
- Popular, well-reviewed book written by psychologist and dad of four, 131 Boredom Busters and Creativity Builds for Kids
- A reviewed, curated list from Common Sense Media of creativity apps for kids from preschool to high school.
1. Scott, G., Leritz, L. E., & Mumford, M. D. (2004). The effectiveness of creativity training: A quantitative review. Creativity Research Journal, 16(4), 361-388.
2. Hadani, H., & Jaeger, G. (2015). Inspiring a generation to create: Critical components of creativity in children. Sausalito, CA: Center for Childhood Creativity.
3. Sternberg, R. J. (2006). The nature of creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 18(1), 87-98.
About the Author:
Lilla Dale McManis, MEd, PhD, is an educational psychologist who specializes in learning and cognition. She uses her training and experience to promote optimal outcomes through translating research into meaningful practice.