Thursday, July 22, 2010

7 Strategies for Cultivating Creativity in Children

In a recent Newsweek article, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman report that American creativity on the decline. I don't find this surprising given the emphasis on standardization in US schools and our culture's general attitude towards conformity, but it is alarming. Since creativity is such a vital element of successful problem solving and progress, it seems that we would be wise to find ways to cultivate creativity, not silence it.

One of the important points from this article is that creativity is not a characteristic exclusively belonging to artists, writers, and musicians. Creativity is simply defined by leading researcher Teresa Amabile as an idea that exhibits novelty and appropriateness. So while sculptors, painters and composers clearly need creativity in order to succeed in their fields, so do mathematicians, engineers, hairdressers, physicists, doctors, chefs, and parents.

Some of the strategies I've learned to help cultivate creativity in our children include:

1. Be creative. Forgive me if this one seems obvious to you. However, I find that a lot of parents do not consider themselves "creative" because they don't do still-life oil paintings until 3 am. I'm here to tell you that everyone is creative! Maybe you are someone who can look in the fridge and pull together a gourmet meal from whatever you have lying around. Maybe you are the parent who is able to create a fun and entertaining game to pass the time during long road trips. Maybe you enjoy having a beautiful flower garden, or putting together fun outfits, or coming up with original ideas for birthday parties. Whatever it is, let your kids see you doing it.

2. Be flexible. Research, particularly that of Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, finds that parents who are flexible and who create a relaxed and supportive atmosphere in the home raise children who are more well-adjusted, successful and creative. Children cannot be creative and take risks if they are afraid of mistakes and disapproval. This used to be referred to as authoritative parenting (as opposed to authoritarian or permissive), but is now called Autonomy Supportive Parenting.

3. Create a creative environment. Make sure your children have simple, open-ended toys that promote imaginative play. Make your home as washable and child-friendly as possible so they can play and create without having to worry about breaking a favorite lamp or getting dirt on the white carpet.

4. Play imagination games. The car is a perfect place to use this strategy. We like to come up with progressive stories on road trips. It is fun to see how players try to move the story in a particular direction when other people throw a wrench into their plot. We also like to look at other cars or planes flying overhead, and make up stories about the occupants.

5. Keep fantasy alive. There are a few schools of thought on this one, but I firmly believe that by allowing children a rich fantasy life that includes fairies and gift-bearing rabbits, you expand their minds and give them license to imagine the impossible. When ideas are not constrained by the properties of the real world - when magic is seen as a possibility - amazing things can happen.

6. Don't be too quick to answer questions. Young children are famous for always asking questions. For example, my daughter recently asked me why the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. However, I didn't respond right away (though I did eventually break out the lamp and the soccer ball to offer an accurate explanation). Instead, I asked her what she thought - which, for the record, is that the sun and moon are on a teeter-totter. I like to do this for a few reasons. It lets children use their minds to imagine what might be going on before you offer an answer, thereby ending the thought process. It helps to avoid Expert Syndrome, where children are constantly looking outside themselves for authority. Lastly, it offers a fun and useful window into their minds.

7. Expand their horizons. I guess this is just another way of saying "Provide enrichment", but I think it is much deeper than providing colorful mobiles and music lessons. What I really mean to suggest is this: offer your child new ideas, experiences, foods, people, places, and things to consider. Who really knows where the seeds of a new idea is planted? The more fodder we provide, the more our children will have the opportunity to create new things and ideas. This goes for us, too!

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