How To Help Kids Build Creativity, Both On & Offline
Written by Children and Screens
Photography by Lisa Wong Jackson, Photographed by Jen Siska
Creativity is a fundamental building block of our humanity. It’s the relentless engine that’s driven progress since the dawn of time and propelled us towards so many of our greatest achievements, from democracy and Darwinism to the Mona Lisa and the moon landing. And yet, parents often misunderstand creativity, treating it as something relevant only to a life in the arts or some inherent attribute that children are born either with or without. The truth is that creative thinking is a skill that’s beneficial in every facet of our personal and professional lives, and, just like a muscle, it can be developed and strengthened with the proper training.
What does that training look like in 2021, though, when life takes place online and so many traditional forms of in-person education and socialization are on hold? Some of the world’s leading researchers and educators have weighed in with their suggestions on how to encourage this kind of behavior, below.
EMBRACE YOUR CURIOUS SIDE
Curiosity and creativity go hand in hand, which means parents should encourage their kids to be open to new experiences and ideas, regardless of their interests. “Creativity is NOT just for artists,” says University of Connecticut Neag School of Education Professor James C. Kaufman, PhD. “It thrives in science, business, technology, and everyday life.” Kaufman also warns parents to be wary of the stereotypes that often surround creativity, namely that it’s only for ‘genius’ types or that there’s some inherent link between creativity and mental illness or drug use. “Some personal insights may never be shared or even verbalized, but they still matter,” he explains, “and much of the research suggests that creative action improves mood, manages stress, connects people, enables healing, and gives us meaning.”
Award-winning author and speaker Catherine Thimmesh agrees, reminding parents not to limit their children’s creativity to any one field. “Creativity is openness,” she explains. “It’s flexibility, finding new perspectives, risking failure, making connections.” For parents wondering how to get started encouraging more creativity in everyday life, she suggests some simple prompts like inviting your child to try something new—even wacky—every day, or challenging them to reimagine common household objects for new purposes and problem solving games.
SET THE STAGE
A blank page, canvas, or screen can be intimidating for kids, but sharing examples can help spark their imagination. “When we run workshops, we always start by showing sample projects,” says Scratch project founder and MIT Media Lab Professor of Learning Research Mitchel Resnick, PhD. “We show a diverse range of projects in hopes of connecting with the interest and passions of participants.” While there’s always a risk that kids will simply mimic the examples they see, Resnick suggests encouraging them to change or modify whatever they’re working on in ways that insert their own unique voices or add a personal touch. Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity Director and UCLA Distinguished Professor of Psychology Robert M. Bilder, PhD agrees, pointing out that “most learning starts with imitation, so it’s important to choose spectacular creative models.”
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
Open-ended experiences and activities that allow for many possible outcomes can be great tools for inspiring creativity in children. “For example,” says author and former Director of Programs and Exhibits at the San Antonio Children’s Museum Susie Monday, “when waiting for a meal to arrive at a restaurant (outside!), take turns around the table coming up with all the things a napkin could be (hat, beard, mask, sculpture, origami, puppet, etc). Try the same game with a bar of soap in the bathtub (boat, brick, soap bubble machine).” Monday also encourages parents to ask their children open-ended questions about whatever they create. With artwork, for instance, rather than simply asking, “What is it?” parents could ask their child to tell them the story behind the picture or present questions like: “What do these colors make you feel like? What are your favorite lines in this picture? If you could make this drawing talk, what would it say? If it was music how would it sound?”
Senior Research Scientist and Director of the Creativity and Emotions Lab at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, PhD, seconds the importance of open-ended, unstructured play time for kids. “Scaffold younger children’s play with materials that don’t have an inherent obvious use,” she suggests, “and support exploration for older children. Popular kit subscriptions are great to teach kids how to follow instructions, but without finding alternate uses for their contents, they won’t stimulate creativity.”
In addition to engaging in unstructured play and problem solving that has no “right” or “wrong” answers, Dr. Bilder suggests focusing on action and connection. “Choose action or interaction over reaction and observation,” he says, “and encourage children to play with others.”
SCREEN TIME, DREAM TIME
“It’s a common misconception that 21st-century kids are less creative than children of past generations because so much of their play is dominated by screens,” says LearningWorks for Kids founder Randy Kulman, PhD. “However, 35 years of research by Dr. Sandra Russ suggests that the opposite is true.” To make the most of digital play, Kulman recommends sandbox games like Minecraft or Terraria, as well as finding technology that fuels kids’ interests and skills, such as apps that allow them to make videos, take photos, create artwork, play music, or build their own worlds.
“One way to think about creativity is as a shift from ‘what is’ to ‘what if’ thinking,” says Education and Early Childhood Senior Lecturer Mona Sakr, PhD. “In ‘what if’ thinking, children open up their minds to all the possibilities around them.” With that in mind, Sakr recommends foregoing highly structured apps and games that only allow for closed digital play with limited options in favor of open-ended apps and games that make room for this ‘what if’ thinking. Fiona Scott, PhD, Lecturer in Digital Literacies, The University of Sheffield, agrees, adding that “apps and games that include open-ended activities, which enable children to experiment for themselves, foster creativity. Those whose design features constrain choice and agency, e.g. by only having a limited number of options to choose from, may shut creativity down.”
VP of PBS KIDS Digital Sara DeWitt agrees, saying, “High quality digital media can be a great place to inspire creative thinking and encourage imaginative play away from the screen.” Like Kulman and Sakr, DeWitt suggests steering kids towards games where they can tinker or build structures and machines to test for strength and speed. In addition, preschool role play games allow children to make up stories and try out the ways in which characters may interact with one another. “When a game or activity is based on solid educational principles,” she says, “children can connect what they’ve done on screen to real-world creative play.”
While listening to the radio or reading books has traditionally been considered to stimulate creativity more than screen time, the kind of content that kids are experiencing is also extremely important. “Early exposure to creative television models is linked to divergent processing, or the generating of many different or unusual ideas.” says Georgetown University Professor of Psychology and Director of the Children’s Digital Media Center Sandra L. Calvert, PhD. “In addition, early exposure to imaginative television programs has long-term beneficial effects on adolescents’ creativity, specifically ideational fluency (quickly generating multiple ideas) and taking more art and music classes.”
THE MAGIC OF FANTASY
Fantasy is a prevalent part of childhood, from watching fantastical films to reading fantastical stories to pretending to be fantastical characters. “Some adults might think that engaging in fantasy is a frivolous or even harmful activity for children’s development, but recent research is starting to show that it has important links with children’s cognitive development,” says Oxford Brookes University Principal Lecturer Louise Bunce, PhD. In one study, for example, children who naturally enjoyed engaging in more fantastical activities were found to produce more ideas when asked to name as many red things as possible, and they could act out more ways of moving across a room, such as dancing or cart-wheeling. According to Bunce, “This may be because engaging in fantasy and being creative both involve producing novel ideas that are not tied to reality.”
Imagination also offers a path to help kids boost creativity for fun and to overcome challenges. “As much as there is outside,” says author Charlotte Reznick, PhD, “I tell kids there’s that much and more on the inside.” Reznick recommends breathing exercises that can help kids transport themselves to faraway lands where they can ask for help with life’s trials in creative ways. “One shy girl received the gift of a speak-up necklace, while another fearful boy dreamed up a giant white dragon wrapped around his bed allowing him to drift off to sleep, and a teen imagined visiting the Hall of Knowledge to figure out the best way to write an innovative essay. These simple tools are bound to inspire.”
WANDER AND WONDER
As inspiring as the digital realm can be, there’s little out there that can compete with the real world. Studies have shown that engaging with nature, taking a walk, or riding a bicycle can encourage creative thinking. “Find ways each day to allow your child to wander and wonder outdoors,” says Professor of Psychology Dacher Keltner, PhD. “Build a history with favorite parks, places of nature, or places in cities to go to and explore.” Rather than label and explain everything, Keltner suggests asking questions that point to mysteries and encouraging children to interact with their environments using all five senses.
University of Arkansas Assistant Professor Darya L. Zabelina, PhD, agrees, highlighting outdoor activities and unstructured free time as essential tools that can help facilitate more creative thinking. “Research shows that creative thinking activates the Default Mode Network, which is a set of brain regions that activate when we’re internally focused,” she explains. “When focused on the digital screen, we are by definition focused externally, thus decreasing the opportunity for us to engage in creative thinking.” There are a number of studies that show that creative people are more open-minded, and that even perceptually, they have more broad attention, so engaging in activities that help to access that open-mindedness can facilitate creative thinking.
THE JOY IS IN THE JOURNEY
Creativity involves taking risks and making mistakes, which naturally can be anxiety-inducing. Neuroscientist, operatic soprano, and University of San Francisco Assistant Professor Indre Viskontas, PhD, recommends helping kids learn to appreciate the process of creativity rather than letting them get hung up on outcomes. “Studies show that external rewards—like gifts or candy—can dampen creativity by devaluing the process,” says Viskontas. “If a kid thinks they’re working at something just to get the reward, it’s not as fun. But if the fun is the work itself, as is the case for so many creative tasks, then both effort and imagination flourish.”
As author and University of Delaware Professor Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, puts it, “Creativity begins with experimentation.” What happens next is just as important, though. Generating new ideas is only the first step, and it’s important for parents to encourage their children to find their creative voice and follow their vision. “Whether in the arts (12 publishers rejected Harry Potter) or science (ulcers are not caused by stress), creativity at this level requires perseverance and grit,” says Golinkoff. “Creativity is not just for geniuses; it’s something we use every day.”
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, PhD, Professor of Education, Psychology & Neuroscience, University of Southern California, points out that creativity usually emerges when someone is calm. “The kind of creativity we most strive for doesn’t usually result from haphazard attempts to just do something differently or without constraints—it often emerges out of much curiosity and concentrated deliberation on trying to understand something, represent some new perspective, or solve some bothersome problem, no matter how seemingly trivial.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Creativity is contagious, and when children show a resistance to engaging in certain activities like schoolwork, it’s up to parents to draw them in. “This past week, my 1st grade daughter pushed her chair away from the table when it was time to do math,” says Music with Lindsey YouTube creator Lindsey Judd. “I searched my mind for a creative way to bring her back. Her small toys were on the table—the answer! I joyfully asked if she wanted to cover each answer she completed with a toy. We could then reveal each answer by removing each toy. She loved it! Math was no longer about her just completing facts but transformed into a way for her to exercise her own creativity.” Learning what interests their children and students can offer parents a deep reservoir from which to draw when their creativity is called upon.
But parents shouldn’t feel that they have to go it alone. They can also encourage their kids to exercise their creativity by connecting with communities of interest, especially online. “Whether they’re fan creators remixing anime or Harry Potter content, or young game designers in Roblox or Minecraft, kids are inspired not only by the work of professional creators, but perhaps more importantly by other kids like them who they can emulate,” says author and Director of the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine Mimi Ito, PhD. “For parents who want to foster creativity, I would encourage them to support connection to positive online creative communities that are centered on their children’s interests, such as Scratch for creative coding, game design in Roblox or Little Big Planet, fan art in DeviantArt, or videos for TikTok or YouTube.”
BEYOND THE BRUSHES AND STRINGS
University of Cambridge Arts, Creatives, and Educations Professor Pamela Burnard, PhD, recommends thinking of “creativity” not as a singular concept, but rather as the plural “creativities,” a term that recognizes the broad interactive and interdisciplinary benefits of creative thinking in all realms of life. “Reconfiguring the concept of ‘creativities’ as a core element of education, found in the moments of always becoming creative, allows us to re-think one of the most significant concepts in society, and therefore future-making education,” she explains. Registered Canadian Art Therapist Olena Darewych, PhD, RP, RCAT, adds that “In today’s society, traditional arts as well as digital arts such as photography and image-making apps play a vital role in promoting the health and well-being of children.” Darewych recommends that parents create a space at home where children can, either on their own or with other family members, engage in such arts activities that can awaken their cognitive imagination and strengthen their color and pattern recognition skills.
Creativity comes in many forms, and it’s up to parents to explore the full spectrum with their children as they grow and evolve. “Children are strikingly creative when encouraged by loving, observant adults,” says Syracuse University Professor Emerita of Child Development Alice Sterling Honig, PhD. “Give a child a necktie and she or he may conjure how to use it as a seatbelt, a sash, a leash for a doggie, a tail for a kite, and further! Play dreamy music like ‘The Skater’s Waltz,’ and toddlers move their bodies in graceful, creative ways. With gentle support, children can unleash creativity early in a myriad of domains and ways, with an unlimited array of materials and gadgets. Nurture their budding talents!”
Parents should also be aware that children’s creativity levels may naturally fluctuate with time. “Developmental research has found that children’s creative thinking ability tends to decline during middle childhood,” says Manish Saggar, PhD. “However, this decline has not been consistently demonstrated, and the underlying neural and behavioral factors that affect fluctuations in children’s creative thinking ability remain uncharacterized.” To help get to the bottom of this mystery, Saggar and his colleagues conducted a longitudinal study investigating the neurobehavioral basis of creative thinking ability during middle childhood in a sample of 48 children. “We found that although some children show a classic decline in creative ability, others exhibit a significant increase in creativity over time. These trajectories were not associated with differences in intelligence, age, or sex, but rather other developmentally-relevant constructs, including heightened externalizing behavior (i.e., rule-breaking and aggression).”
In the end, the experts agree that creativity is for everyone, and the earlier we encourage it in our children, the more beneficial it will be in the long run. Creative kids lead to creative adults, and the kind of problem solving skills that children begin honing in their youth will inevitably come in handy down the line, whether they’re writing a symphony, figuring out an algebra problem, pitching a startup, designing a website, or solving a major societal problem. With these tips in mind, families will enjoy exploring the world of imagination and embracing their creativity.
Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, enhancing human capital in the field, informing and educating the public, and advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness. For more information, head over to childrenandscreens.com.
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