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Encouraging Creativity in Kids

To Encourage Your Kids' Creativity, Foster It — Don't Force It

There are times I've been very frustrated with a child's behavior, only to realize that my own expectations are the obstacle — they are misguided or inappropriate. They are too adult. When I orient myself again, from the child's capacity, dealing with a behavior, stress, or challenge becomes more collaborative and less frustrating.

But creativity — it seems hard to get wrong. We talk about it all the time — as in, every kid is an artist — and we see it in children. At least we think we do. We know they have creative potential. The question is, what do you do with it? Kids are sponges, right? This is true, but creative activity — especially thinking and problem-solving — has less to do with absorbing ideas and facts than finding new and useful ways to combine the things you do have. I still remember the time my young niece took a toilet paper roll, snipped it in half, taped it, and began using them as binoculars. I was shocked. I hadn't seen a kid do that, at least not since I was a kid, and the adult version of me would have never thought to do so. To see that sort of boring idea happen in the hands of a very young child was so satisfying. Particularly as she made the transformation happily, naturally, unconsciously — all by herself.

When a child shows you, in one instance, that they are capable of this spontaneous doing, it calls into question an entire tradition of preschool art — where separate items are laid out in a very organized fashion, and children construct, say, a bird in a nest, following step-by-step directions with the assembled pieces and the help of several teachers. It's fun, but it's not very exploratory or exciting. The narrowing of art is one problem I have with Pinterest — it's creative, the vast array of all those perfect crafts, but when it comes to creating with children, are we really trying to achieve such prettiness and perfection? What is the real goal? I can't say I know.

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Creativity isn't just something all kids have, or certain people exhibit — it's something to develop over time. I have always associated creativity with art and making things, such as crafting. There was self-expression, generation, and a product. When your child starts preschool, you may hear the word "creative play," which includes pretend play, dress up, and the exploration of materials like sand, water, mud, etc. In the mainstream, we've turned creativity into production (and profit-making). Some career tracks are now referred to as creative, and the people that do them: creatives or the creative class. I also see creativity discussed in relation to (corporate) innovation, for example, in the tech world of start-ups and "disruption."

It's a mistake, when it comes to children, to associate creativity with only art and product. Another way of seeing creativity is as an orientation, a mode of being and learning, or, just thinking. One overlooked aspect of creativity is called divergent thinking. It's the ability to assess what you have and find a new way to manipulate or expand upon what you have. It's also part of the problem-solving process. It's less linear and logical and more associative, wacky, and unexpected. It's trying to find new uses for normal things. Like my niece and the paper roll, kids do this all the time. As a parent you might even find it annoying — the stick employed as gun, the wonky play stroller as a stool to reach the counter. A pinecone is a baseball. A flower is a hairpiece. It's a constant reminder that children see objects and the world around them differently.

When my daughter was small, I remember worrying that she didn't know how to play, or worse, focus. She would use toys, but not for long. She'd flip through books, but not for long. There was no favorite toy. Nothing seemed to truly absorb her. (She was 18 months old). Then we'd go to a playground, and instead of playing, she would sit and watch other children play, almost in awe of these other creatures. When she was 2, we gave her a pair of scissors. She quickly figured out how to slice up paper into tiny bits. She was transfixed. I don't know whether it was the physical work of using her hands, the pleasure of seeing paper chopped up, or just something she could do, but it clearly gave her joy. Since then, it's become clear that art materials are just more absorbing to her than toys. Don't forget to look for that, the joy, and go from there.

Practices that promote creative thinking

  • Messiness — exploration can be messy
  • Boredom and downtime
  • New materials and experiences
  • Focus on possibilities, not limits
  • Embrace difference
  • Process over product. Try to stop caring what kids achieve.
  • Let them lead / do / meander

Practices that hinder creative thinking

  • Not enough time
  • Being critical or self-critical
  • Fear of failure
  • Monitoring, hovering, restrictions
  • Lack of choice — especially when it comes to finding problems on their own and experimenting with solutions
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