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The Arts and Creative Problem Solving

Two girls paintingJudy listened nervously as her seven-year-old son and five-year-old niece began what she was sure would turn into an argument ending in tears. “I want to play spaceship,” said Peter. “I wanna play house!” said Carrie. “Spaceship!” “House!” “Spaceship!” “House!” Judy finally rose from her chair to referee the escalating conflict then heard Peter say, “Hey, we could have a kitchen on the spaceship!” “Okay,” Carrie responded, and the children played happily together the rest of the afternoon.

Without adult intervention, Peter and Carrie came up with a creative solution to a difficult challenge by inventing a new way of playing together. It would be every parent’s dream if children consistently used creativity and innovation to resolve conflict like this. However, the reality is that most children need to learn how to reason creatively and envision multiple solutions to dilemmas. They also need sustained practice with these skills in different kinds of situations. But how, when so much of children’s attention in school is directed toward finding “right” answers and avoiding “wrong” ones, can a child learn and practice these important habits of mind? Where is there room in a child’s life for the messiness and risk-taking involved with creative thinking?

Engagement in the arts offers a wonderful starting point for parents who want to develop and exercise their children’s creative problem-solving skills. It might seem counterintuitive to think of the arts as a place for critical thinking and problem solving, as we typically associate softer qualities such as appreciation of beauty, encouragement of personal expression, and nurturing talent with artistic pursuits. Elliot Eisner, a professor of education at Stanford University, offers a deeper understanding of the role of the arts in a child’s life: “The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer. The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of the large lessons kids can learn from practicing the arts is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.” Dr. Eisner’s view that the arts can be about problem solving leads us away from the idea that children’s art is only about making aesthetically pleasing objects or providing entertainment, and gives a parents a way to help children be more innovative in very simple, yet powerful ways.

For example, Nancy, a parent of three elementary-aged children, pulls out the “scrapbox” when her kids say, “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do!” or if she feels they have had enough screen time. The scrapbox is a container filled with simple and inexpensive materials like paper towel tubes, rubber bands, scraps of paper, paper clips, cotton balls, etc. Nancy challenges her children to create “junk sculptures” that solve a problem in an original way: “Using only the materials in the box, build the tallest, most interesting or most beautiful structure that is also able to stand securely on its own.” Nancy says, “My children love these kinds of challenges, and each of them creates a very different solution to the same problem. It’s fun to point out to them that everyone is ‘right’ in their own way. And they are never bored with this creative activity!”

Jordan, a day care provider, does something similar. She says, “I give each child the exact same quantity of various materials like pipe cleaners, pieces of cardboard, etc. Then I ask them to create something original from what they have to work with—anything they want. It’s amazing to witness the range of creations that children construct from the same materials.” Jordan also encourages collaboration between children as a way of sparking creativity; often a new idea will emerge when two children are sharing their thinking and supporting each other’s work. She also helps them understand that feeling frustrated is okay. “The right amount of frustration can force someone to think more creatively and reach for a new way of solving a problem. It’s fun to see a child move from being stuck and wanting to give up to feeling excited about trying out a new idea.”

Creative thinking and reasoning have been identified and highlighted as an essential twenty-first-century skill by many business, education, community and government leaders. As our children grow and develop, introducing them to the idea that the arts involve creative problem solving will teach them how to manage frustration, uncertainty and ambiguity with innovative ideas and solutions. Through the arts, our children can learn how to express their unique identities, while simultaneously developing habits of mind that will help them succeed anywhere, from the playground to the workplace.

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