What I love most about toddlers and preschoolers is how creative they are. They have imaginations that put pieces together in inventive ways, and they concoct creative stories that are absolutely delightful. So how can we help our kids hold onto their childlike creativity well into their teens and adulthood?
First, we must begin by believing that every single person is creative. Even that scientist or engineer in your family—even that kid who wants proof about everything! This belief is not ridiculous. Some of the most creative people I’ve met are scientists, engineers, athletes, and mathematicians. We tend to think only people in the arts are creative, but it’s not true. Anyone who is successful is creative in some way.
According to creativity experts, creativity is about using divergent thinking (coming up with many unique ideas) and then using convergent thinking (combining the best of your unique ideas to come up with a great result). In other words, it’s about thinking, creating, and combining ideas.
Unfortunately, we’re becoming a nation of uncreative thinkers. While IQ test scores go up (and our kids become smarter), their CQ (Creativity Quotient) test scores are dropping. Millions of people have taken the creativity test, called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, and the results show that American’s creativity is going down, down, down.
Who are creativity researchers most concerned about? Our kids. They say that creativity drops the most for kids between kindergarten and sixth grade. By the time our kids are getting to middle school, they’re getting so overwhelmed with learning complex information and meeting standard-grade requirements that they rarely have time to think creatively.
So what can parents do?
Make creativity a part of everyday life. Researchers Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Gary Gute, and two others found that parents who promoted creativity were very responsive to meeting their kids’ needs while also challenging their kids to develop their skills during down times. In other words, kids felt safe at home. They knew whom they could depend on. They also became bored at times, and their parents encouraged them to find (or create) something interesting to do.
Support and encourage creativity. With preschoolers, parents can encourage kids to spend time doing role-plays (pretending to be another character or animal). Encourage them to create imaginary worlds, friends, and situations. As they grow older—say around the age of 9—ask them about the fantastical worlds they’re creating. This was why the Harry Potter book series took off. It created a fantastical world that tapped into kids’ creativity and imagination. We need more books like that! I recommend the picture book Not a Box by Antoinette Portis. Pick up a copy at your local library. Your teenagers may even enjoy it.
Exercise your own creative muscles! How do you decorate your home? How do you create meals? How do you solve problems? All these things can reveal your creative side. Consider taking a class that encourages creativity. Make something you’ve never made before. Take walks in nature (that’s what many creative people do to get their creativity going).
Whatever you do, don’t get attached to results. Nothing kills creativity faster than you (or someone else) criticizing someone’s creative attempts. Maybe at some point you’ll want to master a skill, but in the beginning, just play. Just be creative. And encourage your kids to do the same.
Gary Gute, Deanne Gute, Jeanne Nakamura, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “The Early Lives of Highly Creative Persons: The Influence of the Complex Family,” Creativity Research Journal, 20, 2008, 343–357.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and Psychology of Discovery and Invention (NY: HarperPerennial, 1996).
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, “The Creativity Crisis,” Newsweek, July 19, 2010.
Peggy Orenstein, “The Creation Myth,” O: The Oprah Magazine, February 2011.
Sark, Sark’s New Creative Companion: Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit, updated edition (Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 2005).
Antoinette Portis, Not a Box (NY: HarperCollins, 2006).
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