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Home » Notes to Parents »

Elements of Creativity

Children may be described as creative because they have not yet learned many conventional ways of thinking and so are freer to act and think in fluid, unusual, and exploratory ways.

While there are many components of creative thinking, the three most central for such thinking in children, as well as those most easily nurtured by parents and teachers, are:

  1. Playful Exploration: ways of playing, especially with open-ended materials--either alone or with other people--that allow for creative expression and spontaneous discovery. More about playful exploration....
  2. Fluent Ideation: the ability to generate multiple ideas, including unusual ones, across multiple categories for a single image, object or situation. More about fluent ideation....
  3. Novel Combination: the ability to generate original thoughts and ideas by making connections between or among concepts that the thinker previously saw as separate and unrelated. More about novel combination....

In addition to the creative thinking processes, at least two other elements contribute essentially to a creative act — knowledge and interest.

Creative thinking processes and knowledge work together. We play to gain knowledge, and when we have knowledge, we have the option of being creative by playing with it. The more knowledge we have, the greater the possibilities for combining ideas and thoughts in new ways (novel combination).

Being creative also requires interest, in the form of motivation or inspiration. People are most creative in activities that they love because they enjoy the play, the activity, and the thinking involved.

As children reach school age or start working towards goals in their creativity, they will start to use a third element important to the creative process: evaluation. They will begin to look at their creative products to decide whether or not they "worked," or to determine how they would do it differently next time.

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Playful Exploration

Musicians love "jamming." Athletes seek "the zone." Others describe their creative states as "deep play" or "flow." These can all be seen as variations of playful exploration, an important path to creativity.

Because it is enjoyable to them, productive creators explore their areas of interest on a regular basis, open to noticing and curious to explore. Even so-called "accidents" of scientific discovery, like the X-ray, have happened while the scientists were exploring their work for other reasons. Other creative people describe having rituals and routines for engaging in their discipline. Writer Julia Cameron, for example, handwrites three pages immediately upon waking, just to find out what ideas developed overnight. Choreographer Twyla Tharp calls her habit of playful exploration, "scratching;" she purposely looks for movement ideas in whatever she is doing or watching. Educator John Holt characterized playful exploration as "messing around," and insisted that time to play around with an instrument, a medium, an object, or an idea is essential to building understanding.

An important component of playful exploration is interpretation, which rests on perception. Cezanne is said to have felt like less of an artist when he realized his physical vision was abnormal, because he couldn't give his mind credit for his distinctive way of seeing. Dr. Deepak Chopra encourages parents to help their children realize there is always another way to look at things. He suggests designating one day a week (Wednesday in his family) to making a chore or other unpleasant thing into a game as one way to teach children to interpret events from different points of view.

When children have all their basic needs met in a sufficiently stimulating environment—one that offers open-ended materials, time and space to play, and accepting adults —they cannot help but conduct playful explorations. The stage for creativity is set.

Playful exploration features prominently in Shadowcasting, Kaleidoscope, Matisse Cut-outs, Pentatonic Scales, Stars, Mural and Emoticons, but you can approach any of the activities in a spirit of playful exploration.

Sources and Further Reading:

Ackerman, D. (1999). Deep Play. New York: Random House.

Cameron, J. (1992). The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York: Putnam.

Chopra, D. (1997). Seven Spiritual Laws of Success for Parents: Guiding Your Children to Success and Fulfillment. (Abridged Audio Cassette). New York: Random House.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with
Everyday Life
. New York: Basic Books.

Holt, J. (1989). Learning All the Time. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

Lester, R. K. & Piore, M. J. (2004). Innovation: The Missing Dimension. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (2002). Personal Memory of Interpretive Notes. Impressionist Still Lifes exhibit. February 17-June 9.

Piirto, J. (2000). How parents and teachers can enhance creativity in children. In M. D. Lyncy & C. R. Harris (Eds.), Fostering Creativity in Children, K-8: Theory and Practice (pp. 49-68). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Tharp, T. (2003). The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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Fluent Ideation

Fluent ideation sometimes stems from "thinking outside the box" or "coloring outside the lines." Children seem to be particularly good at this kind of thinking for two reasons. Sometimes it's because they have not yet noticed there is a box, or in the case of coloring, do not yet have the coordination to stay within those lines. So instead of being limited by boxes, lines or other conventions, they can see more possibilities for objects they encounter.

The other reason children seem good at fluent ideation is that they've got to use what little they know for whatever they need (also known as bootstrapping). Consider for example the eleven-month-old child who takes a word his mother says when he drops something, "uh-oh," and repeats it endlessly while watching his father's bowling tournament. He may have very tiny vocabulary, but uses it to comment on things that seem somehow similar.

In addition to what they know, children use whatever materials are available for what their imagination tells them they need. Something as simple as a bunch of silk scarves in pastel colors can inspire hours, days, even years of inventive play. Silks become drapes, hideaways, clothing, blankets, magic carpets, dolls, ropes, dance or acting props, decorations, the sea, sky, grass, and on and on. The conversion of a silk square from doll's blanket to superhero's cape to lead puppet in today's play illustrates fluent ideation at work on a single object. Uninhibited imagination is clearly in play here!

Older children and adults who have already learned traditional problem-solving techniques may find that their creative thinking skills improve when they try out their methods of problem solving in different areas of work or study, or with unusual kinds of problems.

Fluent ideation is explicitly encouraged by the structure of the Designer Butterflies activity which allows spaces for saving up to six creations at a time. And new ideas will surface every time a child revisits any of the activities.

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Novel Combination

It seems humans are designed to make novel combinations. Take language as an example. We do not speak by memorizing whole sentences. We learn a set of words (vocabulary) and a set of rules to use for combining those words (grammar). Consider for instance the eighteen-month-old who calls out from her car seat, "Careful, Mama, car bump you, band-aid!" She had never heard anyone say this, but was able to combine words she knew in an original but clear way to express an idea.

Whenever a child makes a connection between what he had previously seen as isolated facts, it is a creative act. This is true even if the child's discovery or realization has been known to others before him. Rather than tell a child, "I know, that's the formula for the sum of an arithmetic series," share in his joy and let him tell you how he figured it out. Communication and elaboration of the idea will show why creativity is so often linked to originality. When we express our unique selves, that expression will always be a little different from anyone else's.

Novel combinations feature prominently in Window Boxes, Haiku, Designer Butterflies, Stars, and Mural, but players can experiment with novel combinations every time they revisit any of the activities

Sources and further reading:

Bronowski, J. (1975). Science and Human Values. New York: Harper & Row.

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (2001). Creativity: Find it, Promote it. Retrieved January 19, 2005, from

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