We often remark on the marvelous creativity of young children's drawings, dramatic play, and invented language. Children show imaginative use of color, themes, and flights of fancy in their language. As teachers, we play an important role in supporting children's ability in art, dramatic expression, and creative responses to problems.

Often, our primary goals are directed at keeping children healthy and safe, teaching cognitive skills such as shape and color recognition, encouraging prosocial behavior, and introducing basic literacy and numeration skills. With all the time that needs to be devoted to these areas, there is less opportunity to think about the importance of nurturing children's creative abilities. And yet, creative power increases a young child's desire to learn and supports intellectual development.

Ask five different teachers to define "creativity" and you'll probably get five different answers. One definition of creativity focuses on the process of "divergent thinking," which involves:

  • the breaking up of old ideas
  • making new connections
  • enlarging the limits of knowledge
  • the onset of wonderful ideas

When we encourage divergent thinking, we help to maintain children's motivation and passion for in-depth learning. Encouraging children to keep on generating new ideas fosters their creative-thinking abilities.

When children learn how to become comfortable with ambiguities, they are developing complex thinking skills. For example, Joey, an older toddler; was glad to be invited to his friend's birthday party, but he also felt grumpy because he did not get the toy train that his friend received as a birthday gift. Children need help to understand that it is not only possible, but acceptable, to hold contradictory or opposite ideas and feelings in their minds at the same time. Give children experiences in playing with ideas that may be ambiguous or uncertain.

You can help children understand that:

  • Some feelings and wishes are the same as those of other people, and some are different.
  • A friend may want to play the same game as you some of the time but not all of the time.
  • You can do some things now, and some things later.
  • One idea could be a good idea or not a good idea. (Singing songs is fun, but not at naptime when others are resting.)
  • There are consequences, and alternatives, to actions. This kind of thinking sharpens reasoning skills and sparks a child's own creative solutions to conflicts.

Creative Teaching

To enhance children's creativity, keep the following in mind:

  • One important way a child learns of his self-worth is through his interactions with you.
  • Be generous in positive descriptions of children's work and ideas.
  • Remain focused on the uniqueness of each child and the challenge to nurture her trust and creativity.
  • Hold group meetings where children can freely express ideas, particularly in the area of problem solving.

Questions Without Answers

Socratic or open-ended questions are a great way to get children's creative juices flowing. These questions help a child distance himself from the here and now. Choices, comparisons, entertaining new ideas, and formulating personal responses to these questions are all-important ingredients in creative thinking.

Here are some open-ended questions to ask children to inspire their creativity:

  • What could happen if it always rained on Saturdays?
  • What if cars never wore out?
  • If you saw a mouse in your backyard chewing your mother's favorite flowers, what would you do?
  • Why don't we wake up with our hair neat and combed?
  • What would happen if a cow, a bee, and a clover got together?
  • What could happen if cats could bark?
  • What could happen if all the shoes in the world were the same size?

Remember that some questions may be too difficult for a child who has had little related experience in the real world (some city children have never seen a cow or clover). Be sure to tailor your questions to the current experiential knowledge of the children. When possible, take children on a field trip, show them a video, or invite "experts" in different areas to come and talk to the class in order to expand children's background of experience.

It's interesting to explore ways of jump-starting children's creativity in different curriculum areas. Whether children are involved in art, dramatic-play, or music and movement activities, careful thought and planning can help them delve further into their creative-thinking abilities.

Dipping Deeper Through Art

Easel and finger painting while listening to classical music; drawing; clay work; making prints; slithering cornstarch goop between fingers-these are just a few of the art activities that promote creativity and are already staples of many early childhood classrooms. Sensitive observation will reveal creative discoveries. For example, a teacher may hand a large paintbrush and a cup of blue paint to each of a small group of preschoolers. She may notice as one dabs blue on her paper. In dreamy pleasure, the child watches the patch of blue on her paper. She then dips her brush and watches wide-eyed as the blue of her initial swath deepens in color, and great drips of blue paint slowly creep down the easel paper.-She marvels at creating a deeper tint of blue.

In her observation, the teacher was able to appreciate the child's discovery that layering more and more color changes the intensity of the color and the amount of the drip. Your sensitivity to the power of a child's discovery is what unlocks the child's passionate commitment and delight that are bedrock requirements for creativity.

Magical Movement

Some little folks need to be in intense active movement a lot of the time. For them, it might be wise to encourage dance and movement as often as possible. Divide children into two groups. Have one group "make music" by clapping their hands, playing rhythm instruments, or tapping their feet on the floor. Ask the second group to listen carefully to the rhythms provided by their peers and dance to the music in their own inventive ways.

Children learn to represent things by using their bodies in space. Toddlers love to try to hop like a bunny. Older children might enjoy moving like a turtle, a dragonfly, or an elephant. Ask the children whether they can use their bodies to represent emotions, such as joy, anger, or surprise.

Creative thinking is implicit in many cooperative games, such as "Big Snake." In this game, children stretch out on their stomachs and hold the ankles of the person in front of them to make a two-person snake. The "snake" slithers over on its belly to connect up to make a four-- person snake and so on. The children have to figure out how the snake could slither up on a mountain or figure out a way to flip over the whole snake on its back without losing its parts.

"Just-Imagine" Games

"Imagine this" games permit children to take off on flights of fancy that require them to retrieve information from memory, compare and contrast ideas, and make connections between disparate bits of information.

At rest time, you might let children conjure up different imaginary scenarios, such as being a fly busily walking across the ceiling. What are they looking for? How do the children on their cots look to the fly from its upside-down vantage point on the ceiling?

You can also ask children to pretend: "You can be any animal you wish. Which animal would you choose? What would you do all day long as that animal?"

Some creativity games, such as the "One Goes Back" game, help children learn more about themselves, including their preferences and reactions. In this game, you might ask:

"Suppose you were given these three objects (teacher names objects): Which one of the three would you give up if you had to give one back? Why? What could you do with the other two things? Could you use them together? How?"

The "Uses" game draws on children's ability to conjure up lots of unusual and unconventional uses for objects, such as a tin can, paper clip, or cardboard tube from a paper towel roll. When a teacher gave some men's ties to a group of 6-- year-olds, they pretended to use them as seatbelts while taking a plane trip. They also pretended the ties were slithery snakes crawling along the floor. Give children the chance to play out their imaginative scripts with such props and then enjoy your peek into the window of their creative conjuring!

Indoor Picnic

Plan with children to create imaginative indoor scenarios to lift everyone's mood during dark winter days. For instance, try creating a summer picnic in the classroom. Spread a large sheet on the floor Put seashells and maybe a few handfuls of sand in shallow plastic tubs of water Work with children to prepare a variety of sandwiches and slices of fresh fruit. Ask parents to send in some summer clothing so that preschoolers can change into swimsuits and carry towels. Have a small plastic swimming pool on the floor After children "go for a swim," they can make sand pies or sort seashells on the edge of the "sand" sheet.

Poetic Pathways

Read poetry! Brain researchers emphasize how important it is to wire in neural pathways with variety and richness of language interactions. "Use it or lose it" seems to be the rallying cry for brain development during the first years of life and "cells that fire together wire together." You can use poetry to encourage children to problem solve and to ask what is coming next.

Try this humorous and rollicking poem from the book Blackberry Ink by Eve Merriam (Turtleback Books, 1994; $10.15):


Bella had a new umbrella

Didn't want to lose it,

So when she walked out

in the rain

She didn't ever use it.

Her nose went sniff,

Her shoes went squish,

Her socks grew soggy,

Her glasses got foggy,

Her pockets filled with water

And a little green froggy.

All she could speak was a weak Kachoo!

But Bella's umbrella

Stayed nice and new.


Arranging for Creativity

How you set up your classroom paves the way for creative adventures. Provide enough space for a safe block corner and enough cars and blocks for creating highways and traffic jams. Have easels out and smocks with plastic flexible neck-- bands ready for children to put on when inspiration strikes. Try to have fewer time constraints for activities so that children's creative juices can flow unfettered by a classroom clock.

Although story-reading times and group times are wonderful ways to increase social cohesiveness, be aware of the implications of requiring all children to participate together for other planned activities. Children may be discovering on their own something that is not part of your specific plan for them. For example, if all the children are playing a game outdoors and one child wants to create a sandcastle, a flexible teacher will not be threatened by this personal choice. Perceptive teachers handle such individual needs in ways that nurture a child's growth rather than squash budding initiatives.

Dramatic-Play Patterns

An indispensable classroom ingredient is the dramatic-play area. Teachers often ask themselves, "Can rigid dramatic-play scenarios be considered creative in any way?"

As they chase peers, some children play "monster" as other children screech and run away. The repetitive "monster" play requires no surprise scripts. Yet, the teacher who wants to promote creativity can help connect the stereotyped behavior of a given child with the larger world of imaginative play. We, as teachers, are constant observers and learn about each child's unique style, fears, strengths, and use of fantasy. Notice children's repetitive themes and how these serve to buffer them against anxiety. Question children to get a better understanding of their dramatic-play themes and wishes.

The relationships between teachers and children, how classroom time and space is organized, and materials available are important factors in the development of creativity. Classrooms where children are supported in their eagerness to explore relationships and materials without fear or disapproval from teachers or peers, where teachers are prepared to unearth resources to satisfy children's creative thirst to know, are classrooms where creativity is likely to blossom and grow.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart Children's Creative Development (PDF)