Fostering Creativity

How to Help Children Stay Creative

Children are filled with wonder, curiosity, and fresh new ideas.

By Abby Connors | Posted 3/8/10 | Updated 5/17/24

Picasso famously stated, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Anyone who lives or works with young children knows they truly are artists, buzzing with creativity, filled with wonder, curiosity, and fresh new ideas.

Every child is creative, but too many children lose some or most of their creativity as they grow to adulthood. In fact, a landmark study by pioneering creativity researcher Dr. George Land found that out of 1,600 children aged three to five, 98% showed divergent thinking, or the ability to generate multiple responses to a single question (a key component of creativity at a genius level). By the time they were aged eight to 10, only 32% could think divergently. And when the test was used with 200,000 25-year-olds, only 2% showed divergent thinking (Land and Jarman, 1993). In May of 2010, a study at the College of William & Mary confirmed that American children’s creativity is decreasing. The researcher, Kyung Hee Kim, noted that “it is the …younger children in America — from kindergarten through sixth grade — for whom the decline is ‘most serious.’”

How does this happen? In other areas — language, math, literacy, science — children become more proficient, more knowledgeable, more skilled as they grow older. Yet when it comes to creative thinking, they’re actually losing ability. But the world needs creative thinking now more than ever. The challenges of global poverty, disease, and war, the need for alternative energy sources, in fact every facet of our future depends on creative minds. It’s imperative that we educate our children to develop their creative potential.

Although the United States has yet to make creativity education a priority, other nations have. The United Kingdom has been promoting creativity development in education since 1998. Creative Partnerships, the English government's program to develop creative learning, was started in 2002. It is about to be relaunched as an independent organization called Creativity, Culture and Education and will invest 100 million pounds (almost one and a half million dollars) between 2009 and 2011 in cultural and creative learning. Taiwan, Italy, Spain, and other countries are implementing educational policies to encourage creative thinking.

Until the American educational establishment realizes the importance of promoting creativity in education, there are many ways teachers can help their students develop creative thinking skills. The two most basic needs of creative students are freedom from evaluation and time to generate ideas.

Of course, we live in a culture of evaluation, and evaluating students’ performance in areas such as reading and math is desirable and necessary. When it comes to creative thinking, however, this culture of evaluation is dangerous. When children expect their creative work to be evaluated, they become fearful and hesitant and their creative thinking decreases. Even praise, or positive evaluation, decreases creative thinking by focusing students on external motivation. As Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, states, praise “motivates children to get (more) praise… often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise… They become less likely to take risks — a prerequisite for creativity — once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming” (Kohn 2001).

True creativity comes from internal motivation to express ideas and feelings. Time to generate ideas, and encouragement to generate ideas, are also crucial to developing children’s creative thinking skills. Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist and peace activist, said “The best way to have good ideas is to have lots of ideas, and throw away the bad ones.” Unfortunately, in our schools children are often rewarded for getting one usable idea quickly, rather than using their imaginations to think of many ideas. Children need to be encouraged to come up with lots of ideas, both individually and in groups. This takes time, patience, and respect for each student’s point of view.

We can lead activities which encourage brainstorming-type idea generation. For instance, after I read a story to a class of young children, I ask them to think about what might happen next. For instance, after reading “The Little Red Hen,” I ask my students what the little red hen might do to get the other animals to help her more the next time she plants wheat and bakes bread. Some say she should tell them they can have bread if they help her, some say she should explain to them that they all should work together, and some have completely different ideas — one child said the hen should just buy bread at the store!

I often use puppets to bring out children’s creative thinking. I might bring out a pig puppet and ask the children if they have any questions to ask her about what it’s like to be a pig. They always have lots of questions! I also ask them to think of what might be a good name for the pig. I’m always impressed by the wide range of ideas — everything from “Mary Isabella” to “Pinky” to “Froggy”! I refrain from saying anything evaluative or judgmental.

I just say, “Okay, thank you” or nod and then ask another child for her idea. This non-evaluative response on my part seems to improve the children’s respect for each other — I’ve never heard any child say that a classmate’s idea was bad or stupid. Improvising with musical instruments is another easy way to get children generating ideas. Bring out a bunch of shakers or rhythm sticks or coffee-can drums, put on some rhythmic instrumental music, and ask students to think of different ways we could make music with the instrument. Play in a circle and ask each child in turn to show you a new way to play. Using hands, fingers, loud and soft touches, different parts of the instrument, and different motions can create an almost infinite variety of ways to play.

Taking time each day to share a relaxed, fun idea-generating activity, in which ideas are accepted without evaluation, can greatly increase students’ creative thinking skills, as well as their confidence in sharing their ideas with others.

Next: Author and Childhood Educator Abigail Connors Interview

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