Do we need a new approach to inspiring creativity in children?

Creativity is one of the most valuable skills we can encourage in children. Whether they go on to an inherently creative career or not, their ability to be creative is likely to help them get out of difficult situations, be valued as an employee and provide them with great personal satisfaction.

Whilst there are countless products (physical and digital) available to enable children to create, I’d love to see the toy and app industries do more to help children optimise their lifelong creativity. I have both studied theories behind inspiring and nurturing creativity in the workplace, and worked in countless creative teams, and have been considering how, as an industry, we could use the products we develop to help children adopt a creative approach.

What is creativity? 

Whenever I consider the subject of child creativity I am reminded of the wonderful poem ‘The Little Boy’ by Helen E. Buckley which serves to underline how easy it is to discourage creativity in children. The little boy in the poem still ends up creating something, and maybe his teacher conveys some useful drawing skills in the process, but clearly she undermines his creativity.

Many of us instinctively think of being creative largely as the act of creating something, and yet, as the definitions below, from the Oxford English Dictionary, highlight: creativity is far more focused on inventiveness than on making.

“Create: Bring (something) into existence”

“Creativity: To use imagination or original ideas to create something: inventiveness”

It is therefore possible to create something without being creative. Take baking for example, I found myself this weekend making chocolate brownies (again), yet despite the number of times I’ve made them I still looked up the recipe and followed that approach as closely as possible. I managed to create some lovely brownies but I wasn’t creative in my approach. The same could be said for copying a picture exactly or following instructions to make a model plane or anything else. Of course creating in this way can be very rewarding (they were great brownies!) and ‘making’ has a wide range of benefits for children, but inspiring creativity requires far more than just copying someone else’s great idea.

Real creativity is very personal, typically it requires us to provide our own unique ideas. So it is not surprising that the biggest barrier to creativity is fear.

Fear of Judgement

Most young children naturally enjoy creating. Whilst parents (like myself) faced with an ever growing pile of scribbles may on occasion doubt it, their attempts are occasionally remarkably inventive, although the results are limited by their artistic (or other) skills. At a young age children take pride in what they make and happily believe each creation is brilliant! Unfortunately, however much parents praise their efforts, at some stage their creations start to be criticised, often as much by themselves as their friends, teachers and family. This quickly discourages their creative attempts and leads many to label themselves ‘not creative’ before they reach 10 years old, a label they often retain for life.  As Elizabeth Gilbert describes so passionately in her TED talk on ‘Your elusive creative genius’, putting yourself out there to be judged creatively is pretty terrifying. Sadly I don’t think we’ll convince the world to go back to believing creativity comes from our very own ‘genie’, although I love the idea, but what we can do is help children develop creative confidence and embrace failure: subjects of some of the other TED talks in the creativity series. I strongly recommend watching the whole series.

For example, to overcome a child’s fear of judgement, we must develop a child’s confidence and make them understand that, as Adam Grant put it in his TED talk:

“The greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they are the ones that try the most”.

Any children’s products that can support this lesson and praise efforts and inventiveness over final execution are extremely valuable. Developing creative confidence is no easy task and whilst we need to help them accept failure and judgement, they will also need creative success for their confidence to blossom. To optimise the chances of this we must both teach them the skills they will need to bring their idea to life, and teach them, or at least expose them to, a creative process known to be good at inspiring new ideas. For the former, children need to learn techniques and develop the physical skills necessary to draw, paint, cook, play music etc, otherwise any ideas will be trapped inside their heads. There are plenty of toys, apps, games, approaches etc out there to encourage this. For the latter, there are some fantastic products (toys, books, apps) that do this well but I’d love to see these being incorporated more into children’s products.

The Creative Process

Going back to the Little Boy poem, rather than inspiring him to draw, the narrow suggestion to draw one specific type of flower actually discouraged the little boy from having his own ideas. The problem is, give them a blank piece of paper and most children don’t immediately have hundreds of original drawing ideas pop into their head, particularly as they get older. As anyone who has designed creative / ideation workshops will tell you, the trick is to provide a whole range of stimulus to start off the creative process.

It is tempting to give children apparent creative success by helping them replicate something impressive through a series of steps. However, this really practices their skills at following instructions, not thinking creatively and, since it’s likely to set the bar rather high, will not help them feel confident that they could come up with something equally good if not better – a key motivator for creativity.

Instead we need to embed steps or stimulus that get the child’s creative juices flowing. This article by Elmers provides some great ideas for inspiring children’s creativity. Whilst these are focused on use within the classroom, using the same ideas subtly within, for example, a game flow, board game or toy construction process could work well. The product could be designed to subtly:

  • Give them a problem to solve (creatively): going back to my brownies, the only time I became creative with the recipe was when I found I was missing an ingredient and needed to improvise. I’m certainly not advocating toy companies start leaving key parts out of the box, but requiring the child to come up with some parts themselves is a common approach.
  • Add a story context: like problem solving putting a story around a creative activity helps children and adults alike. In developing an interesting story we naturally add problems to solve, use our imagination etc.
  • Convince them their ideas are better: maybe any initial design suggestions for a creative task should be intentionally poor!
  • Help them think outside the box: encourage them to go beyond the realms of reality – get them creating a character with a superpower of their choice, add strange elements to imagery like shoes on their hands etc.
  • Make failure fun: avoid the opportunity for failure if possible, or if that isn’t possible add an element of humour and encourage the trial and error loop.
  • Give them many not one idea: to provide inspiration a whole range of ideas, ideally with lots of differences that might get them thinking, questioning and making unusual connections is far better than a single suggestion.

Maybe the teacher in the Little Boy poem should have shown the little boy’s class 20 different types of flowers, generated a discussion around different colours, shapes and other flower features or even talked about their opinions on what makes flowers pretty or not. If she had then asked each child to draw a flower of their own design, I have no doubt the results would have been very different.

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