Creative Development in Adolescents

Parents can make a difference! Learn how to foster creativity in your pre-teen.

By Michelle Anthony, PhD



Creative Development in Adolescents

The potential to foster creativity among 11-13 year olds is tremendous! Surges in cognition provide children with the largest learning capacity that they will experience across the age span. Not only can children use symbols, they are now able to manipulate them abstractly, apply reason and logic, and formulate and test hypotheses independently. Their interest in topics that they view as valuable is at an all-time high as well. Middle schoolers are capable of problem solving in creative ways that will drive their own discoveries and their skills allow them to identify nuances and possibilities. Unfortunately, as we have seen in previous stages, opposing developmental forces conspire against the creativity of children this age, often leaving them following the herd and under-challenging their own sources of interest. Yet parents can make a difference! 

According to results from the UK government’s report on literacy, children were most creative between the ages of 3-5, when 98% of those tested demonstrated the ability to think in divergent (non-linear) ways. Divergent thinking is a key component to creative thought processes.  By the time these children were 8-10 years old, only 32% demonstrated divergent thinking. Among the 13-15 year olds, the number had dropped to only 10%. Obviously, divergent thinking declines tremendously over the course of development. But why?

The reason creativity diminishes as children grow may vary with each stage. For young adolescents, the intense pressure to conform, fit in, and not stand out is one key factor for the (continued) loss of creativity.  While teens are known for being impulsive risk-takers, within academic circles they tend to be the opposite. They conform to expectations, often work to prepare for the test, and avoid actions that may draw attention to them or will cause them to make public “mistakes.” 

However, there are ways to work with children’s developmental drives and foster creativity at the same time. For example, children this age value connections with friends. Use this knowledge to spur creativity! For girls this may mean encouraging them to make projects for friends, such as duct tape pencil toppers or friendship bracelets for their BFF. For boys it may mean using trading cards as taking off points to explore imaginary worlds, or creating new rules for favorite sports or games. Middle schoolers are often beginning to question their parent’s values and the expectations of their teachers. Helping children see that divergent thinking requires questioning typical ways of doing things, may be just the spark they need to invest in more creative endeavors. 

Other ways to foster creative thinking:

  • Make learning hard enough to be challenging (so that your child will not be bored, and so they will see the value in investing their time), but easy enough to avoid total frustration. For young teens, feeling “not smart” is an instant turn off to learning. Allow manageable frustration around learning.
  • Encourage experimentation as a component of learning. Ask your child to try several different methods of approaching a problem or project and then have him reflect on what was the best or most effective way of doing it. Even if you know something will not work, allowing your child to discover this on his own in low-stakes situations fosters creative thinking, problem solving and metacognitive skills. 
  • Foster divergent thinking: Games like Magic Pen support divergent problem solving.
  • Create a new framework of thinking about mistakes. Support your child to move away from “playing it too safe” to pointing out the risks you have taken that have worked, and have not. Emphasize how you managed the situation, and the ways that mistakes led you to new learning and discoveries.
  • Encourage your child to become more observant of their own experiences. This will help give him some perspective, as well as allow him to notice what he is noticing (metacognition again). Support him to move from observations to conclusions about his observations. 
  • Help your child become an expert in something that interests her. For example, if your child likes science, Wondervillle is a fun interactive site to gain knowledge, confidence, and expertise while thinking creatively and having fun! With rich and varied understanding of a topic, your child becomes able to create innovative solutions or demonstrate divergent thinking. Try some of the activities in this section to set your child on his way.
  • Break Convention: Children this age are often locked into peer norms. Make home a safe place to get fanciful and go against norms. Make a dessert for dinner day, or implement a wear-your-clothes-backwards-day or stay-up-as-late-as-you-can- day. See what you and your kids can create! 
  • Ban the Buts: Make your house a can-do place. Help your child rephrase insecurities and hesitations by avoiding “stopping” words like “can’t” or “yes, but.” Switch them out for “yes, and” or “what if”.
  • Provide materials that are open-ended across subjects (e.g., art materials, writing materials, materials for science explorations, etc.). 
  • Provide quiet space: Research suggests that people are more creative when they have privacy and are not interrupted. Having a sounding board or someone to extend an idea with is great, but often the most creative process is when children are free to experiment without worry about mistakes or on-looking eyes. Group work also often allows people to back away from challenge, hoping someone else will push through the difficult part. Support your child in being her own hero in this way. The exception: e-groups, where individuals behind a screen are better able to maintain creative efforts behind the anonymity of the monitor. 
  • Take advantage of online creativity sites: Take advantage of the finding that children will explore new ideas behind the safety of the monitor. 
  • Ask open-ended questions that foster original ideas:
    • What are 3 ways that the world would be different if everyone could fly?
    • Are you more like a mountain or a valley? Why? 
    • If you could change one thing to make the world better, what would it be, and why?
    • Would you rather be a highlighter or a hole punch, and why? 
    • Imagine you are in London in the 1800’s. There is no electricity. How do you cook a meal? 


Stages & Milestones
Cognitive Skills
Age 13
Age 12
Age 11
Middle School
Adolescent Issues
Learning and Cognitive Development
Creativity and Imagination