Fostering Creativity in Children
By Abby Connors | Updated September 14, 2018
In 1983, E. Paul Torrance wrote these remarkable words:
Torrance, known as the “Father of Creativity,” was a professor of educational psychology at the University of Georgia for many years. His consuming interest was creativity — how it could be measured, and how educators could help students to develop it. Although his “Manifesto for Children” may be helpful to individuals of all ages who want to increase their creativity, I’ve been thinking particularly about how teachers of young children can use these guidelines to help their students develop and expand their natural creativity.
I once knew a girl who fell in love. She was four years old and she fell in love with art. Every free moment found her painting or drawing. One day, one of her teachers commented, “Inez, you’re quite an artist,” and Inez ran around the room ecstatically, calling out, “I’m an artist! I’m an artist! I’m an artist!” This extravagant love of creative expression is often squashed by “by-the-book” teachers. It should be encouraged and celebrated if we want to increase our students’ creativity.
Young children are just beginning to learn about themselves. At this crucial time, they need to hear more about what they’re good at than what they need to work on. And it’s important that we allow them to take pride in their accomplishments for themselves, not to please us or other adults. I try to say, “You can be very proud of yourself for working so hard to make that beautiful picture,” rather than “I’m so proud of you.” We can also suggest ways in which they can share their talents with others, asking them, for instance, if they could show the class how to do their funny dance. This adds to their pride and confidence.
I recently said goodbye to a wonderfully imaginative little boy named Elliot (he had to go to first grade). Elliot was constantly surprising me (and everyone else) with his spontaneous bursts of creativity. One day we were singing “Old MacDonald” and someone suggested that we sing about a cat. Elliot jumped up and did a very original dance to his own rhythmic chant: “And a dog — and a cat — and a dog — and a cat.” It was unique and hilarious.
Elliot knew this wasn’t the way we were “supposed” to sing this song. He was just unselfconsciously expressing his individuality. By accepting these “out-of-the-box” responses, we help children feel free and self-confident.
But not every creative child is a wild-and-crazy Elliot. Keep your eye out for the daydreamers, the lookers-out-of-windows. They can hide big imaginations behind those dreamy eyes. And too often, they’re ignored and spend twelve years in school sitting behind a desk, well-behaved and unnoticed. Be sure to offer them creative opportunities, especially to “play against type” — sometimes the quietest, sweetest little girl will be the loudest drum-banger or the nastiest evil queen.
Most young children are not exactly in a position to look for a mentor. Even adults usually “find” mentors by serendipitous accidents as they pursue their creative interests.
But children need mentoring. Mentoring provides them with both inspiration and practical knowledge. As mentors, it’s our job to inspire the young children we teach, as well as help them with useful tips and advice. We inspire by our attitude, by sharing the joy we get from our own creative projects, even if they’re not perfect — especially if they’re not perfect. Young children need to learn that creative self-expression is an important part of our lives.
We give practical advice when children need help expressing themselves — when they ask us how to spell a word, how to whistle, what a phrase means. To develop creative thinking, children need more than the standard curriculum — they need teachers who respond to their needs for inspiration and information.
It’s so sad that high-school students, in the race to get into a good college, feel they have to prove their “well-roundedness” by not only getting good grades, but also joining all kinds of clubs, participating in musical groups, playing on a sports team, doing community service, and so on. There’s so much pressure to excel at everything. Not only is this horribly stressful for the students, it does’t serve their educational needs — just the opposite. They should learn to celebrate their individuality and concentrate on their strengths, not strive to be Superstudents.
It may seem like this situation is here to stay, but it doesn’t have to be. We can start in the early years to communicate the idea that no one is great at everything, but everyone is good at something. We can share our own “weaknesses” — maybe we aren’t particularly athletic, or artistic, for instance — and show that we accept ourselves as we are, enjoying the talents and strengths we do have. It may seem like a little thing, but this attitude can be tremendously freeing for children.
Doing what we love, whether it’s a career or a hobby, fulfills us and makes our lives more meaningful and joyful. It gives us energy and enthusiasm that spreads to everything we do.
Now, obviously, if a four-year-old loves to run and is a very fast runner, that doesn’t mean we should encourage her to chuck the whole school thing and train for the Olympics. But we can find many little ways to allow children to “do what they love.” I was leading a game with a group of five-year-olds in which we took turns pretending to be a rooster and waking up the other “farm animals” (the rest of the class) with a loud cock-a-doodle-doo. When it was Ayush’s turn, he calmly informed me, “I’m not going to be a rooster, I’m going to be lion.” Well, why not? I thought. A lion’s roar would certainly be a waker-upper! Ayush didn’t love to cock-a-doodle-doo, he loved to roar. He expressed himself and we all had fun, and wasn’t that the object of the game? In these little moments, we can help young children by making it okay for them to do what they love.
What does interdependence have to with creativity? Isn’t creativity a personal, individual thing? It is, but creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, We create for own happiness and fulfillment, of course, but ultimately we create in order to help, inspire, entertain, and take care of others. Each individual’s unique brand of creativity is needed to make our world better for everyone.
Why does Torrance talk about learning the “skill” of interdependence? Because it’s not something we’re born with. Young children are naturally egocentric — they become aware of others’ thoughts and feelings only gradually, with the guidance of caring adults. We can foster interdependence by how we manage our classrooms — giving each child a helping role every day, for example. Also, we can read stories about characters who come together and share their ideas and abilities to achieve a goal. Some stories I us with this theme include “The Tortoise and the Hare” by Janet Stevens (several animals help Tortoise prepare for the race in their own ways), “Rooster Can’t Cock-a-Doodle-Doo,” by Karen Rostoker-Gruber (in which the other animals get together to wake up the farmer), “Just a Little Bit” by Ann Tompert (jungle animals help balance an elephant on the seesaw) and “Farm Flu” by Teresa Bateman (which ends with farm animals taking care of a little boy who helped them when they were sick). These stories, and others, gently and humorously share the message that we all need each other’s special talents and ideas.
It’s never too early to begin nurturing creative thinking, and the “Manifesto for Children” is a great source of inspiration for teachers, parents, and caregivers. We all have much to learn from Torrance’s research, his writings, and especially from his passion to assure that all children have the opportunity to reach their creative potential.
Next: 10 Ways Improvisation Helps Children Learn
©2013 Abigail Flesch Connors. All rights reserved.
Abby Connors is an early-childhood music teacher and author of Shake, Rattle and Roll: Rhythm Instruments and More for Active Learning. ...