Mastering the art of cultivating our kids’ creativity

John Cowan spends an hour with Juliet Small

Years ago when I was teaching art, I conceived a project for my students, envisioning exactly how we were going create this fantastic piece of work. It would have a sky, painted blue of course, and grass painted green. I had it all worked out, step by step, and even knew where it was going to hang on the wall when we had finished. But I soon got thrown off course by a particular boy (a child of an artist) who said, “But, Miss, I just can’t do it like this!”

I was challenged. In fact, it kept me awake that night. I said to the boy at our next class, “Why don’t you do it your way? You don’t have to paint in any particular way or order – paint your own thing.” And away he went. The end product was unique and beautiful. His creative mind envisaged his own picture. He just could not ‘paint by numbers’ the way I was asking him to. If I had forced him to comply with my idea of how things ‘should’ be, I would have stood in the way of his urge to express his own creativity.

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I believe creativity exists in every child. We see it bubbling out of preschoolers in the form of curiosity, an unceasing trail of, “Why? Why? Why?” In wanting our children to keep that wide-eyed wonder about their world and courageous creativity right through life, what role do we play? The challenge is to find ways to make room for their creativity, working to ensure we do not inadvertently stamp it out.

Creativity shows up across the school curriculum

At the moment, creativity falls into a zone of educational activity that is not readily measured or assessed. But schools are increasingly embracing a drive for it. In fact, more than just ‘ticking the boxes’, education equips children with the tools of literacy, numeracy, science and so on, and these basics become the tools children deploy to turn their creative ideas into reality.

In a PE class not too long ago I saw children working together, collaboratively, on a laptop, designing dance and gymnastic routines. Once upon a time it would have been far more ‘teacher-directed’, with the teacher up front teaching the routine.

Creativity is very important in science. Recently I saw students in a chemistry lab making soap. Alongside mixing chemicals and learning to understand their reactions, they were also designing packaging for their soap and creating the scent and colour. Through their curiosity and creativity, our students learning engineering are also exploring possible solutions using 3D printers.

A note on perfectionists

I would like to think that creativity is fun, and that it gets children engaged and keen to learn so much more. But for some kids, it is terrifying because they just want to please their peers, parents and teachers by sticking to rules and meeting expectations. And so they freeze up because they don’t want to make a mistake. They get anxious and you may see them starting a piece of artwork three times and showing other signs of ‘perfectionist procrastination’.

An important conversation we have with our students is, “There are not necessarily right or wrong answers when you are exploring.” Some teachers I know get children to have a practice book so the child doesn’t have to feel they need to be ‘perfect’. They know that in this book there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and it doesn’t get marked.

The polar opposite of that idea is the dogma, “There is only one right way to do something”. That idea might lead children towards some sort of technical competence, but they miss out on all that wonderful ability to think outside the box and discovering that making mistakes is a part of learning.

What can we do to encourage creativity?

Ask open-ended questions

Instead of putting the emphasis on kids knowing the ‘correct’ answer to a question, reverse the scenario. Give them the answer and get them to explore what questions might result in that answer. For example, if you asked your child, “What does 10 plus 10 equal?” they will say, “20” – the only right answer – and that would be the end  of the conversation. But if you said, “How many different ways can you make 20?” Then immediately, it is open-ended and there are a huge number of responses available. Children at various developmental stages will create wonderfully diverse and creative ways to arrive at the same answer, 20.

As a principal, I relish opportunities to be back in the classroom, and I am currently teaching the recorder to a Year Four music class. Very early in the process, I asked the children, “How would you like to spend your time today?” They wanted to create music. So that’s what we did. It didn’t matter that they could only play three or four notes – they all came up with their own personal melodies. They thought they could be creators and during the class they proved it to themselves. It was what I love to call ‘lifting the lid’ on the learning.

You could argue that colouring books, where you have to stay within the lines, and LEGO construction sets where you have to follow a set plan, could be barriers to creativity. But not necessarily – have the colouring-in book, but I would also encourage you to have blank pieces of paper and felt pens and just let kids go for it. They could follow the set instructions for making a LEGO model but also make room to ask, “Okay, what can you make now?”

Give them creative time and space

Creativity can be a messy process, and maybe you are reluctant for their creative chaos to take over your whole house. So why not try having a ‘creative corner’ with art supplies and tools instead? You could also try scheduling in creative time in a certain place. For example, “You can use the dining table for one hour but I would like it all cleaned up in time for dinner.” Urge them to use their technology for more than just entertainment by creating things with it too.

Let them see how much you value their creativity

When children bring home artwork and other creations from kindy and school, make a fuss over it. “Tell me about your picture.” “I love the colours you chose.” Have a special place to display things – on the fridge, on the table, or in their bedroom.

Model it

Just like anything we want to teach our children, creativity is best taught when they see us modelling it. Passion for creativity is contagious, so let them see your pleasure as you create new recipes, or make a go-kart or some other project in the garage that you are doing just for fun.

Let them see your reactions to mistakes

Most importantly, let them see and hear your reaction to mistakes you make – your garden might be far from perfect, your project might not look exactly like it was intended, but show them that you are prepared to take a risk, do them and reflect on the result be it successful or not. Creativity is often a process of boldly making mistakes until it gives birth to something wonderful.

Attend a Toolbox parenting course

Toolbox courses inspire and equip whānau. They are bursting with great advice, humour and encouragement, offering practical strategies and insights into developmental stages. Parents leave reassured that challenges are common to all families and that they’re not alone on their parenting journey. The courses are run over a number of weeks in a relaxed and conversational small group setting with a trained facilitator. The five courses – Building Awesome Whānau, Baby and Toddler Years, Primary Years, Intermediate Years, and Teenage Years. Find out more and register here.



About Author

Juliet Small

Juliet is the Principal of Saint Kentigern Girls’ School in Auckland. She has taught across all age groups from new entrants to intermediate level at schools in London, Hamilton, Invercargill and Auckland. She has 14 years of experience as a principal in Auckland primary schools and holds a Bachelor of Education, Diploma in Teaching and Post-Graduate Diploma in Counselling Theory. Fun fact - Juliet is also an accomplished violinist, playing with the Auckland Symphony Orchestra for eight years.

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