Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nurturing Creativity in Children

Children have a natural tendency towards creativity. Not all children are as creative as one another, but all start out showing an ability to demonstrate creativity. We can encourage and build on this natural creativity or we can inadvertently shut it down. Here's an example that I shared in a post on play last year (here). My wife Carmen and I called at our daughter Nicole's house one Saturday and we both ended up in the back yard with our grandchildren. Carmen was cutting the children's hair (it was Jacob’s turn); Nicole and David were preparing afternoon tea. The girls took the opportunity to rough me up a little. Rebecca aged almost 4 at the time said, “Sit down here Grandad" (meaning the veranda on their cubby). When I did she jumped on my back. I immediately responded by clasping her legs and standing up. “Oh no, I screamed, what’s on my back?” “I’m the Hagy," she cried. "Oh no," I said, "I'll toss you into the ocean, because Hagy's hate water." I raced off to the other end of the yard with Rebecca squealing with delight as I ran too close to the bushes and tossed (well lowered) her into the sandpit (the "ocean"). This was repeated several times before Elsie aged 2 claimed her turn. This continued for about 15 minutes with many variations (different monsters and different responses from grandad to the dastardly creatures). Eventually Jake (aged almost 6) sprung from the hair-cutting chair and claimed his turn. This seemingly silly play involved many things that built on my grandchildren's creativity and at the same time, encouraged it in varied ways, including creative story making (in which all of us participated two at a time), word play, sound exploration, physical activity and performance etc.

In this post I want to address what creativity is and how we encourage it in our children. I've written a number of posts on this blog that have indirectly addressed creativity. Readers of this blog know that I have discussed creativity as part of play (see my series of 4 posts on play here or check out all posts tagged 'play' here), creativity in learning and language (see for example my post on being inventive with language here or all posts tagged 'creativity' here), specific approaches to literacy and language learning for older school-aged children which encourage and support creativity (for example my post on the 'Language Experience Approach' here) and fantasy (see for example my many posts on literature). Creativity has many dimensions and can be stimulated in many ways.

What is creativity?

The US National Association for Gifted Children defines creativity as:

"The process of developing new, uncommon, or unique ideas"

This is a useful definition but it puts the emphasis on the products of creativity whereas Barron and Harrington (1981) remind us that discussions of creativity can focus on process, product or person. My view is that creativity can (and should) be considered in terms of products, process and personal attributes. My definition of creativity is as follows:
Creativity involves the generation of new ideas or concepts that usually lead to new products, performance and processes, or new associations between forms of knowledge, performance, processes or language.
Creativity involves adaptability and flexibility of thought. Guilford's (1956) structure-of-the-intellect theory gave us an important awareness of the differentiation between convergent and divergent thinking which is helpful in understanding creativity. Convergent thought is designed to lead to a single solution or one answer. But divergent thinking requires the learner to generate many ideas and solutions. It's useful to evaluate our interactions as parents, teachers and grand parents with our children. Do we encourage creativity or do we shut it down?

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson argues in Britain children have been educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers, students with restless minds and bodies. Instead of creativity being cultivated it is ignored or even stigmatised, with terrible consequences. He suggest that schools '...are educating people out of their creativity'.

Creativity is often associated with divergent thinking and action. Divergence from the norm is often indicated by the ability to generate many ideas, or simply to develop a more complex or novel ideas, solutions or actions. Note that this doesn't mean an approach to learning that values wrong answers. Life does require the ability to find right answers, but even discovering right answers doesn't always require the same path to be followed. Divergent or creative ideas, actions or processes are often characterised by greater or superior ability in the following areas:

Fluency - The ability to generate many ideas, solutions, products, actions etc.
Elaboration - The ability to expand or embellish ideas or actions; to stand on the shoulders of others to show new ways forward.
Flexibility - The ability to show flexibility in seeking solutions, expressing oneself, engaging in play and so on. This is not about volume but the varied nature of ideas, solutions or actions.
Complexity - The ability to conceptualise multidimensional ideas, actions or products; to see new ways to achieve goals.
Originality - The ability to create novel or extremely different ideas, actions or products; to think outside the square.
Risk-taking - The preparedness to try the new, the novel, to explore the unknown, try new things; to move outside your comfort zone.
Curiosity - The tendency to explore, seek new solutions, show hunger for learning, ask many novel questions; the tendency to ask 'why is it so'?

How is creativity demonstrated and how can it be impeded?

As my definition above indicates, creativity can be demonstrated in many ways. Mathematics can be just as creative as music or art. The skilled footballer can demonstrate creativity just as much as the creative writer. Public speaking, car restoration, event planning, gardening, cooking, singing, poetry writing, play and drawing can all be creative. I won't labour the point, but put simply, creativity can be demonstrated in any human endeavour, and it has significant value.

Children have a natural tendency towards novelty, experimentation and exploration of their world in new ways right from birth. While genes have something to do with creativity and it varies from one person to another, all humans have the potential to be creative and creativity can be fostered or discouraged.

James Moran suggests that for young children, a non-evaluative learning environment is a critical factor in developing creativity and in avoiding what Treffinger (1984) calls the "right answer fixation." He argues that as children grow older they move toward conformity, and that this is most marked in the primary school years (5-12 years of age). Work on ideational fluency (or the generation of ideas) suggests that it is halved from age 4 to 12 years (during the school years) and then returns to similar levels during the university years for some.

While we usually assume that restrictive curriculum, the removal of opportunities for creative exploration and stress on convergent thinking is the major contributor to a loss of creativity in the school years,
Groves, Sawyers, and Moran (1987) suggest that the use of rewards and incentives also interfere with creativity. In particular, they seem to reduce the quality of children's responses and the flexibility of their thought.

How can we stimulate creativity?

a) The preschool child - Parents, carers and preschool teachers need to:
  • Provide time for children to explore their world.
  • Offer opportunities for structured and unstructured play.
  • Encourage experimentation with language and story.
  • Create an environment that encourages the child to invent novel solutions in play.
  • Ensure that children are not placed under too many restraints and structures.
  • Try to enhance opportunities for children to attempt to solve problems or explore new things.
  • Offer new experiences and situations that challenge them to find out, seek solutions and solve problems.
b) School-age children - The teacher or parent needs to:
  • Encourage learning, expression and exploration in situations that emphasise the generation of ideas, solutions and forms of expression that are divergent as well as convergent.
  • Ensure that the desire to evaluate learning and encourage excellence does not limit creativity.
  • Ensure that rewards do not simply privilege single answers or solutions, or pathways to reaching the single right answer (because of course there are correct answers to some things).
  • Provide time for children to explore, express and reflect on their learning.

Creativity is very important in most areas of life. We enjoy watching the creative performer, cheering the creative sports person in any game, we love to listen to creative writing and music, we hope that our medical researchers will continue to seek creative solutions to disease and that our world leaders will seek creative ways to solve significant political problems. How we support children as they grow, makes a difference to their creativity and many argue that this in turn has an impact on the richness of our communities and nations. We have a big responsibility to encourage creativity. As John Holt expresses it:

What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out (John Holt, 1981)

Related links and resources

'Creativity in Young Children' - James Moran (here)

My previous post 'The critical place of play, creativity and fantasy' (here)

Teachers in particular may find the video clip from Sir Ken Robinson helpful in thinking about creativity at school


Simone R. said...

Hi Trevor.

I really enjoyed this article and video. The trouble is that in a system where 'outcomes' are god, creativity won't be valued because it can't be measured.

I'm not how this can be changed. In my experience, schools (and teachers (I'm one)) struggle to cope with difference in the classroom. Conformity and aquisition of reading and writing skills (which are relatively low order processes) are what's valued. The political speak around the national tests show this.

A few things:
- creativity makes for an unattractive classroom: a classroom with 30 similar pictures hanging up will look neat. 30 australian animal colouring ins on one wall, 30 similar leaf and bark tree collages on another wall. 30 letter As hung across the middle. This will look good and parents like it. Real creativity will be very difficult to hang up in an orderly fashion. Parents and teachers will need to learn to prize different things.

- the focus will need to move from assessment. Assessment will kill creativity because creativity requires risk. I'm teaching the water cycle at the moment to a year 3 class. I'd like to teach it thoroughly then get them each to come up with a creative way of presenting it. Some might use a flow chart, others a collage or diarama, others will write an explanation... Given this task, a certain sort of child (my son) would, without fail, want to make a water cycle system with water and heat and find some way of making the process happen. The more creative the idea, the larger the possibility of failure. I don't want him to fail (it's assessable!) so I steer him in a less risky direction.

- the curriculum is so full. Fostering creativity takes time. What will we sacrifice to make time for it?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Simone,

Thanks for your comments. You make some interesting points. I smiled at your comment on the untidy classroom; this is so true. Most of the creative teachers I've known have been a bit messy and the kids work varied (we'd both agree is good).

We obviously agree about the issue of assessment, the biggest influence is not external assessment (which can have a shaping effect) but the day to day assessment of teachers and parents and what they value and reward.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful comments.


creative children said...

Nice post about "Nurturing Creativity in Children" for all creative children, it helps a lot in how to guide our child's in their creativity stage. hope to see more soon, Thanks!