Nurturing the Creativity that Already Exists within our Children
Every day with Oliver is an opportunity to observe the natural creativity that is a large part of the way babies and young children operate. Divergent thinking is almost a way of being for them. I think I always believed that young children were naturally creative, and this belief was truly confirmed when I began watching my son explore his environment and learn about the world on a daily basis. To Oliver, there is almost nothing that has a fixed function. Countless examples of this divergent thinking come to mind. One of his first experiences with his toy kitchen, pictured here, involved putting a bowl on the floor, opening the broiler door, and attempting to climb on both. Recently, Oliver took an old clementine box, turned it upside down, got his toolbox and created a complex game involving the screws and wrench and the holes in the bottom of the box. And for my favorite example, at 18 months old he made up a game in which he pretends to pick up the trees off his bed sheet (just pictures of trees), holds these imaginary trees in his hands, and runs across the room to feed them to our dog.
Recently, attention has been paid to the fact that creativity scores of Americans on The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking have been steadily declining since 1990 and, according to a researcher at The College of William and Mary, the decline is most serious in children from kindergarten through sixth grade (see this article). We strongly believe that the emphasis placed on standards and testing in our public school system, as well as the coercive nature that prohibits following one’s own interests, could be largely responsible for this decline and identify strongly with Sir Ken Robinson who believes that schools kill creativity.
Some teachers and schools are working to combat these negative effects of testing and standards by developing a project-based approach to learning. This is surely a positive step, but it’s not enough. It’s something that can be done within the current model, but the current model needs to be changed for the maximum effect. And this is a major reason that we will unschool our children. We see such a tremendous level of divergent thinking and creativity in Oliver, and we think that best way to nurture and protect that is to keep him out of a coercive school system and let him lead us where he would like to go in his learning.
In the same article mentioned above, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico found that practicing creative activities actually changes the brain’s neurological patterns and develops the creative networks of the brain more quickly. While I believe that young babies and toddlers don’t need to practice creativity because it comes naturally, I see merit in these findings as they imply it could be very easy to lose, or have severe diminishing of, these creative networks early in life if placed in an educational system that does not nurture creativity.
Here are some ways that we try (we are works in progress and have much room for growth!) to encourage and nurture Oliver’s creativity:
- We try not to tell him or show him the “right” way to play with his toys or use every day items. Of course, as babies and toddlers are the ultimate imitators, he does and will continue to use common household items for their intended purposes simply because he watches us doing so. However, especially with toys and games, we try to sit back and let him explore freely. If he thinks his puzzles pieces are fun to stack, then we let him stack them instead of stopping him and telling him to put them in the puzzle slots.
- We try not to correct him and try not rush him when he’s figuring something out for himself . When he does decide he wants to use the puzzle for its traditional purpose, we try to let him figure it out, instead of doing it for him. This is challenging to stay consistent with, but we are working to get better with it.
- We try to provide mostly open-ended toys to encourage divergent thinking and imaginative play. Blocks, bits of nature, playsilks, and many recycled home items are great for open-ended exploration. Toys with distinct uses can limit creative thinking and we tend to steer clear of things that light up and make noise when he touches the buttons. These have such limited use and don’t encourage him to think creatively.
- We give him the opportunity to engage in artistic and creative expression. We listen to music, we dance, we draw, we finger paint, and continue to present him with more of these opportunities as they become age appropriate. We try to focus on the process here, and not the product.
- We encourage and join him in imaginative play. At 19 months, his capacity for pretend play is somewhat limited, but we have been amazed at what we’ve seen so far in terms of his ability to pretend. He takes the rules of his pretend games very seriously and loves when we join him in these games and play earnestly with him.
- We try to model creative pursuits in our own lives. He will see James practicing the guitar, me sewing and trying to knit (still learning!), us both drawing with him, us writing, etc.
We hope we’re off to a good start here! What are we missing? Please feel free to leave comments telling us what you do to encourage and nurture creativity in your children!