The following insights come from the article “Can Creativity Be Taught? Results from Research Studies” by Linda Naiman. The article is aimed at the business community, but its ideas are applicable to families and home.
Isn’t creativity all about divergent thinking?
Tina Seelig’s model of creativity, which she offers in InGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, is particularly useful in addressing this question because she integrates convergent and divergent thinking. A lot of advice about creativity focuses exclusively on divergent thinking—usually understood as thinking in an usual way or being able to generate many ideas or solutions for a given problem. While it's true that divergent thinking is often not rewarded in the way convergent thinking is, divergent thinking is not enough if we want to have new ideas that are useful or aesthetically pleasing and meaningful rather than just divergent.
Seelig writes that creative thinking requires a back-and-forth process between convergent thinking and divergent thinking. We might begin with a wild idea, for example (divergent), but unless we learn or already know something about the domain and details, we won't take that idea very far.
Here are some of Seelig’s suggestions for becoming more creative:
What are some creativity exercises to do at home?
Edward de Bono uses the term "lateral thinking" to describe divergent thinking, and you can find quite a few books and online exercises for lateral thinking that can be used at home. Lateral thinking is thinking that doesn't go vertically in terms of solving a problem (deeper but in only one plane), but laterally, to other domains or by jarring us to look at a problem a different way.
One of the simplest and easiest lateral thinking exercises is to use a random generator to make a connection with something else. For example, use the Wikipedia article or image of the day to write a short story or poem. Or when trying to solve a problem, choose a random word in a dictionary and make a connection, however strange, between the problem and that word.
De Bono’s wishful thinking exercise works well for problem solving: ask yourself what the ideal solution to your problem would be if each of these three limitation did not apply:
The point is that the bizarre answers these questions generate can lead to better answers, but we often don't let our minds wander far enough afield as we too quickly censor out what is impractical.
What is the one most important thing I can do as a parent to nurture my child’s creativity?
I can't emphasize this point enough, even though it's probably more difficult in many ways than doing creative puzzles or exercises: the creative model you set for your children will have a lasting impact, one you might not even see come to fruition for many years.
An example from my own experience is that of my mother. She had always been a creative person, but when her children left home, she really soared. While we were growing up, she baked cakes professionally and was an accomplished seamstress. She often did creative activities even when I wished she would be a more dedicated housekeeper like many of my friends' mothers.
In her 40s, she started a long-arm quilting business, designed her own featherstitch designs, published a quilting newsletter, and took in orders from all over the country (keep in mind she lived on a farm/ranch in a rural part of South Dakota on the Rosebud Indian Reservation).
Now, in my 50s, I am so grateful that my mother traded a few dust bunnies for time used for creativity. I use her example every day as a reminder that a happy and fulfilling life for me is a creative life, and that means that some other things have to give way to make room for creativity—what those tradeoffs are will be different for everyone. For some students and families, it might be not making a 4.0 GPA a top priority if it means that children with a strong creative bent are miserable—not a popular stance, but one I will stand by.
Finally, give yourself permission not to make creativity yet another thing you feel guilty about as a parent. Not everyone is equally creative. Not every subject or lesson or day has to have a creative component.
Making creativity a regular part of life is more about adopting a creative mindset, one that looks at failure and mistakes differently, that prioritizes play, that builds time for daydreaming, that encourages pushing past comfort zones, that lets highly convergent children know they, too, are creative (because they are human) and that lets highly divergent children know that we value their divergent difference.
I am passionate about creativity, and here is why: Having greater skills of and practice in creativity and creative thinking can help us to live more fulfilling and even happier lives, even if we never paint a picture or patent an invention.
Thanks to the work of trailblazers such as Ken Robinson (look for his TED Talk videos), parents are very much aware that schools do not prioritize creativity. After all, creative thinking is nearly impossible to quantify. However, when trying to nurture creativity at home, we often don’t know what to do beyond buying more crayons or building blocks.
The good news is that creative thinking is not about things at all (although things can be a part of the creative process). It is all about the ability to look at the world "sideways," to see alternatives to what is obvious, and to keep from getting stuck in one way of acting or thinking. Yes, it is a valued “soft skill” in today’s business world, but the reasons for prioritizing creativity in our homes go far beyond school and work to the heart of what it means to be human.
Here are just a few ways to bring out the creativity in our children and ourselves that have more to do with attitude and habits of thought than consumption of more things.
Embrace complexity and refuse to typecast.
In his research of dozens of successfully creative people, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found one resounding theme: They have complex personalities, meaning that they can switch back and forth between what we normally think of as opposite habits and traits, such as rest and energy, or introversion and extroversion.
For parents and teachers, this complexity in children can be confusing and frustrating, and we are often quick to typecast them as neat or messy or silly or serious. The problem comes when children begin to define themselves according to how others describe them; they might then be less likely to branch out and explore other aspects of their personalities.
While most children will probably lean strongly toward certain poles of personality, we can consciously keep from describing them as such, especially within their hearing, and we can encourage a broad range of expression of personality, even and perhaps especially when it seems to go against their nature.
We can go even further and have short time periods when we encourage our children to "try the opposite" of whatever their usual tendencies are. Better yet, parents can show the way by doing the unexpected once in awhile, to show it's okay to go against people's expectations. If we are always disciplined and orderly, we can, just once, let something slide to the last minute. If we are never, ever on time, we can, just once, arrive ten minutes early.
This complexity broadens our experience of the world and gives us a richer internal repertoire from which to draw creative ideas.
Protect play and unstructured time.
What is play? Peter Gray offers an excellent extended definition in his Psychology Today article “The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Gives Insights”:
Note that unstructured time can be different from play time. It can also, depending on how you choose to define it, include activities that are themselves structured, just not by anyone other than the child.
In her online article “Protect Your Child’s Playtime: It’s More Important than Homework, Lessons, and Organized Sports,” Dona Mathews reminds us, “Although it may look like they’re wasting time, kids involved in imaginative play are discovering what they like doing, what they want to learn more about, and how to interact successfully with others.”
Don’t remove all constraints. Constraints and boundaries are often the catalyst for creative breakthroughs. Even the traditional creative technique of brainstorming has some very firm rules (no squelching of ideas, for example, or the "two pizza rule" of never do a traditional brainstorming session with more people than can be fed with two pizzas).
In the home, you can offer fun challenges with embedded constraints or rules such as to draw a self-portrait using only five lines, which is one of Dan Pink's exercises from his book A Whole New Mind. Something else that's fun is to write six-word stories. Here is a famous example by William Shatner: “Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.”
Encourage children to make art with found objects, or to create prototypes of their ideas with whatever is handy, rather than rushing to the nearest hardware or toy store to buy the perfect tools and parts. Challenge them to design a meal from what is in the refrigerator at the end of the week or to think of ways to work within limits rather than waste time fighting against them.
Don't try to force creativity.
Brain maturation and the process of greater executive functioning is all about learning to step back and think before acting, being able to censor when we need to. For this reason, it’s probably natural that older children will sometimes seem less creative in terms of divergent thinking than very young children. We really don't want to have the fluency of a five year old when we are fifteen or fifty! We want, instead, to be able to tap into that playful attitude when we need or want to, but then also to use our adult executive functioning to tell good ideas from bad and to make smart choices.
Trust the process rather than focusing on daily products. During times when you are most frustrated with your children’s creativity or lack thereof, turn your focus back to yourself and indulge (with joy) in your own creative pursuits. Your children will notice.
Embrace and even celebrate failure.
Carol Dweck's Mindset theory offers a crucial insight for creativity. Many children for whom learning comes easily grow up thinking that if they are seen to try hard, especially to work hard and to make mistakes while learning, that they are somehow not as smart as everyone says they are.
The problem for creativity is that it requires a certain amount of failure, which is often hard for gifted children to accept. Parents can be attentive to activities and skills their children want to try that are hard for them or don't come easily to them, and encourage those especially, celebrating all the missteps along the way. Even better, make those missteps with your child! Take up a new hobby and allow your children to watch you fail miserably at the beginning. You won't regret it.
Give the gift of the courage to create.
Finally, anyone who lives a creative life has to learn to become immune to criticism and ridicule. Having just one person who will never laugh at an attempt at creativity or shun creative effort can make a world of difference in giving children courage to continue to hear their inner creative voices, a gift that they will carry with them for their entire lives.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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