Seven ways to help kids be more creative

Creativity Jul 09, 2020

Kids say the darndest things for a reason: research suggests that kids aren’t just more uninhibited than adults—they’re actually more creatively intelligent before they grow up and learn to comply with the rules.

Most school systems have traditionally focused on gaining knowledge versus coming up with original ideas. But in the early 2000s, the National Education Association (NEA) developed a framework for evolving modern learning beyond rote memorization and digestion of facts. Creativity is a cornerstone of the framework, which emphasizes “The 4 C’s”: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Implementing the 4 C’s in the classroom is still a work in progress, though, and if learners don’t use their creativity, they’re likely to lose it, or at least shelve it. That’s why your child’s free time is prime time for encouraging their creative expression.

How to help encourage kids’ creativity

And even though children are brimming with creative thought, they might need your help to learn how to foster that creativity. Open-ended activities can actually be stifling, warns Marvin Bartel, Emeritus Professor of Art at Goshen College in Indiana. “When allowed to do what we want to do, we are likely to revert to whatever we previously found enjoyable and/or successful.”

Here are seven ways to guide your learner toward creative problem solving and imaginative play.

1. Let your learner get bored sometimes, but provide helpful limitations.

Although it’s tempting to fill your kids’ summer with awesome camps or give them Angry Birds when they’re bored, free play is extremely important to encouraging children to be creative. According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, play looks like “choice, wonder, and delight.” In other words, you should see your child developing ideas and rules, pretending, trying and failing, and finding happiness and freedom in this. These are all important tenets of creativity. It doesn’t hurt that additional benefits of play include intellectual, physical, emotional, and social development.

But like Professor Bartel said, “freedom” can be overwhelming. So provide your child creative jumping-off points, for example:

  • Save cardboard boxes and packaging to be repurposed for art projects.
  • Start a collection of dress-up clothes instead of donating your out-of-date work blazers.
  • Make your own Play-Dough and make sure your child knows where to find it.
  • Save old scraps of fabric, pieces of string, and other materials that could be reimagined, and ask your learner what they would do with them.

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2. Limit (or be strategic about) screen time.

Screen time isn’t all bad, and is actually essential for success in the modern world—writing a paper on a computer or taking an online class shouldn’t be cause for concern. But since video games and social media release dopamine in the brain, they can act like a drug and create a dangerous cycle of addiction. James Madigan, author of The Engagement Game: Why Your Workplace Should Look More Like a Videogame, offers suggested maximums for different categories of on-screen activities. For example, after about an hour and a half of video games, it’s time to find something else to do.

3. Create (or choose) a no-holds-barred creative space.

Whether it’s a designated playroom in your home or the local park, let your learner know where it’s okay to make a mess, spin around in circles, and escape into another world. Nothing does less to stimulate creativity than feeling afraid you’ll get in trouble for knocking over a vase.

4. Encourage iteration—NOT imitation.

While imitation is a common assignment in art classes, Professor Bartel says that such assignments can actually hamper learners’ creativity by discouraging independent thought. It can also hurt their self-esteem when they compare their work to that of the professional artist. Instead of encouraging your learner to copy, suggest they present a variation on a theme. Reimagine a historical scene if events had gone differently, recreate a famous painting from a different vantage point, or write a story from the perspective of a minor character.

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5. Celebrate creative thinkers.

Fill your home with the work of artists, scientists, musicians, authors, and engineers who were the first in their field to look at a problem from a new angle, and highlight this element of their work versus the quality of the result. Encourage your child to learn about the rule-breakers of art history.

6. Resist the urge to give “feedback.”

The reason to encourage creative development in your child is to teach them how to approach the world from their own unique vantage point. The goal is not to ensure your child can play a perfect C scale or throw a symmetrical pot on a ceramics wheel. Your input should be mostly inquisitive, encouraging, and accepting.

7. Ask questions.

Get the gears turning in your learner’s mind by asking them how they see things, what they remember, or what else they’re imagining. Framing information in the form of a question can help your child feel like they’re still in control, while still making new connections they might not have thought of on their own.

Creativity isn’t just an extracurricular activity: it’s one of only four of the NEA’s goals for a modern education system. There’s a reason for that. As our world changes, we’ll need tomorrow’s leaders to be quick on their feet and see the world from a unique perspective. But more than that, being in touch with their creativity from an early age can set your learner up for a lifetime of career success, social and emotional advancement, inner fulfillment, and joy.

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