Fostering Creativity

The Secret Ingredient to Teaching Creativity

Using respect to unlock children's creative potentials.

By Abby Connors from Teaching Creativity | Posted 7/25/10 | Updated 5/17/24

In my music classes with young children, we often do creative brainstorming activities with rhythm instruments. How it usually works is that each child in the class is given an instrument, one child at a time offers an idea for a way to play the instrument, and then the rest of the group will experiment with that movement.

One time, we were playing rhythm sticks when one little girl raised her hand quietly.

"What is your idea?" I asked her. She held the tops of the sticks and danced them around gracefully.

"Oh, they're dancing sticks," I said, while imitating her movements, and the group started to try it out.

"No!" the little girl called out, very firmly. "They're princesses."

I immediately apologized for my mistake and we all turned our sticks into princesses.

So the princess story had a happy ending, but this incident really made me stop and think. How many other times had I jumped in with my own interpretation of a child's words or motions, slamming the brakes on their train of thought and taking over their ideas? I'll never know, because many young children aren't able to be as assertive as that little girl was.

Ever since that day, I've made a concerted effort to listen and watch carefully, refrain from interrupting, and make sure I understand each child's intention before I jump in with my comments. The result has been an outpouring of expressive and unusual ideas. I've seen musical instruments become elephant's trunks, vacuum cleaners, anteater tongues, hats, hot dogs, motorcycles, snakes, and paintbrushes, to name just a few.

And I'm consistently reminded that my first impressions of a child's idea are often way off the mark. What looked to me like a dinosaur turned out to be a robot; what I thought was a puppy scampering was meant to be a unicorn.

When I'm patient enough to really listen, and double-check when I'm not sure I get it, my students trust that their ideas will be heard and understood. This leads to more ideas, more raised hands, more confident sharing of imaginative suggestions.

What we've been talking about here — careful listening, not interrupting, trying to understand — can be summed up in one word: respect. Respect is truly the magic secret ingredient that lets creativity happen. Shy children who never participate are suddenly eager to share ideas. Loud children who are always shouting for attention "catch" the respectful behaviors and listen to their classmates' improvisations. Children who hadn't shown much interest in participating jump at the chance to express themselves and be heard.

And princesses, robots, and unicorns join in the fun.

Respect — listening, not interrupting and double-checking to make sure we understand children's meanings — is the magic secret ingredient for unlocking children's creative potentials.

Next: Keep 'Creativity Folders' of Children's Ideas

©2010 Abigail Flesch Connors. All rights reserved.