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Creating a Creative Child

PICTURE THE MAGIC that happened when you created something extraordinary out of something ordinary… When that stick on the street became a poisonous snake in the “wild jungle” that was, in reality, your regular old neighborhood. Or, when you turned your bike upside down in your backyard and opened up an “ice cream” store using the pedals as a pretend churn. Children are natural-born magicians — they turn everyday reality into something spectacular. At the heart of these magic tricks is creativity. From early in development, when toddlers pretend that a pencil is a magic wand or that the flat deck of cards is the latest smartphone, children are imagining creatively a new world.

Creativity is the skill that inspired some of our favorite childhood memories and is the very skill that will help children succeed in a 21st century global world. Facts are literally at our fingertips these days, and while it is important for children to develop base content knowledge, what appears even more important is their ability to develop NEW ideas and to think about facts and problems in new and creative ways. In their recent NYTimes bestseller, Becoming Brilliant, Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek discuss the 6C’s — or skills — that will be necessary for today’s children to be tomorrow’s successful adults. Creative Innovation is featured prominently alongside Collaboration (getting along with others), Communication (listening, speaking), Content (the 3Rs plus learning to learn), Critical Thinking (sifting through information) and Confidence (grit and growth mindset).

The truth is, however, that childhood today is marked by a crossroad. Do children continue to ask questions, create new solutions, and discover new knowledge with an inquisitive mind, or do they fall victim to an educational system that all too often emphasizes standardized tests and content? While some schools are just now beginning the slow process of moving away from rote memorization and towards more active learning, the slow pace of educational reform around the world means that parents and caregivers play an even more important role in helping children continue along the path that fosters creativity. Case in point: while the keyword “content” is found approximately 1,260 times on www.corestandards. org, “creativity” is found only 46 times. For every one time creativity is mentioned, content is mentioned thirty times. Thirty. No wonder we are in the midst of what Newsweek hailed as a “Creativity Crisis” with today’s children less creative than children thirty years ago (Bronson & Merryman, 2010).

How do we solve this crisis? How can you, as parents and caregivers, help harness children’s natural creativity and bring creativity back to your child’s world?

Perhaps one way to prompt creativity in your children is to be creative yourself.
1) While it is important to follow rules and directions, it is crucial that children have the ability to practice being creative, coming up with new solutions, and yes, even failing. Did you know that how parents handle failure can have everything to do with the creativity and confidence they use to solve the next problem? The question is not whether children should have to follow directions or not, but about how we create a balance between color inside and outside of the lines. Maybe your child loves to play with building sets where there are instructions about what pieces go exactly where to create a masterpiece. Great! Your child is exercising her fine motor skills and spatial abilities. But make sure that she also has the chance to go beyond following instructions. Ask her to create something new, something that isn’t on the page, and to tell you about it.

2) Think about playful learning as a powerful pedagogical mechanism. For so long, play and learning were pitted against one another. But the last few decades of research from the science of learning teaches us that children actually learn better through play and in playful contexts.

3) According to Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek, creative innovation changes across development — look
for and support these levels of creativity:

i. Experimentation — The most foundational form of creativity, experimentation, is when children explore and try things out simply for the sake of seeing what will happen. Picture the infant who drops cereal puff after cereal puff off of the high chair tray when no-one is watching, or the toddler who experiments to see what it sounds like when you bang different objects together. This kind of creativity
is not about following directions or accomplishing a goal — it is about exploration and discovery.

ii. Means-end creativity
— While children sometimes explore for exploration’s sake, they oftentimes are trying to solve a problem or obtain a goal. Think about the child who creatively determines that by pushing the chair up to the counter, she can reach the cookie jar, or the toddler who decides that drawing on the wall is a creative new way to decorate his room. In this stage, we cannot emphasize enough that children are exercising their creativity muscles and that this is a good thing (even if it is incredibly frustrating and we just wish they would follow directions!).

iii. Voice — When we think about a child telling a story that she created, what we hear expressed in the story is her voice — her own personal set of experiences, existing knowledge, and set of objectives. In this third phase of creativity, children (and adults) build upon existing knowledge to add their own unique personal contribution.

iv. Vision — Creative innovation in its most complex form takes the shape when something completely brand new is created. This is not just creative problem-solving to accomplish a goal, it is redefining the goal. It is
not just putting a puzzle together in a creative way. It is changing the pieces. This is the type of thinking that will allow children to be tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, or next great novelist. This is the kind of thinking that doesn’t just make one personally successful but pushes society forward.

A potential solution? Creatively re-imagine where learning occurs

As you can probably guess, there is no magic bullet that generates creative children. No single toy or experience boosts creativity. Instead, creativity needs to be woven throughout your day, from encouraging your child to answer his question about what it tastes like to mix ketchup with his eggs in the morning to having him build structures with different types of materials. Indeed, your home is likely already a place where you inspire creative innovation and thinking. But one recent initiative we are bringing to the streets of Philadelphia is Urban Thinkscape — a creative new initiative that seeks to ask adults to be creative and to think about the potential for playful learning anywhere, including bus stops and street corners. The debut transformation is occurring in the city’s Promise Zone, a federal designation and programming initiative that seeks to help transform areas of deep and persistent poverty. What used to be a simple lot adjacent to a bus stop is being re-imagined into an area of playful learning, complete with installations such as Jumping Feet which helps teach children self-control as they jump from space to space or The Puzzle Bench that makes an everyday bench into three puzzles to be solved while you wait.

At its heart, Urban Thinkscape represents a creative challenge for all of us — how can we transform all places and spaces into creative and innovative places for learning? When we view the supermarket as not just a place to get groceries but a place to engage with children about farms, animals, vegetables and where our food comes from, we have transformed ordinary into extraordinary. When
we morph a walk around the neighborhood into a chance to play hopping games on the sidewalk squares, we
are becoming game creators, and when we see the clouds as dragons and fairies, we are artists who add new dimension to the infinite sky.

Parting thoughts: Today’s children will be solving problems that are not yet imagined and working in careers that do not even exist yet. Creativity allows them to prepare for that ever-changing world — and, luckily, promoting its development is a whole lot of fun!

Jennifer M. Zosh, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the Brandywine campus of Pennsylvania State University. Her areas of expertise, publication, and outreach include cognitive development, playful learning, and the impact of technology on children.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D. is the Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University and a Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Her area of expertise is in the science of learning — especially in areas of language, literacy and play, and in the translation of “edible” science that is accessible, digestible and usable to a lay public.

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