A Thought for Thursday: My Student Just Did Something Creative… Now What?

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This article of mine appears in the latest issue of the online magazine Creativity Portal (creativity-portal.com).

My Student Just Did Something Creative… Now What?

By Abby Connors

That inner “Wow!” That tingle of excitement. That feeling of “Yes! That’s what it’s all about!” That’s the moment that makes me so thankful to be a teacher of young children — when a child spontaneously, unselfconsciously creates a song, a way to play a musical instrument, a new dance move. That’s the moment that shows me that I’ve created a safe place to share ideas, and that the child’s imagination is active and thriving.

So what now? What can I do as a teacher to keep that creativity coming? How do I protect, nurture and nourish this growing creative mind?

I’ve given much thought, devoted hours of research, and learned much from workshops and seminars on early-childhood arts education. I also have to give props to my old friends, Trial and Error— they’ve helped me figure out many strategies for responding to children’s creative efforts.

First, a “don’t” — Avoid saying “Good job!, ” giving automatic high-fives, and depending on general, vague expressions like “Awesome!” or “Excellent!” Yes, giving them a compliment is better than ignoring their creative expression, but what they may be hearing is “The teacher approves of me!” This takes the motivation away from the joy of creativity and plops it into the “teacher pleasing” category. Paradoxically, it actually decreases children’s desire to express themselves. It increases the likelihood of their repeating the same action that gained your approval the first time.

Enjoy it! If it’s funny, like a joke or a silly face, laugh. If it’s beautiful, like a butterfly dance, say “ooh.” If it’s surprising, like a child playing a drum with her nose, go ahead and say “Wow!” Notice! React!

Appreciate it! A creative idea shared by a young child is a gift. Say “Thank you for showing us that funny jump!” or “Thank you for the lovely rainbow song!” When students share the gift of personal self-expression, it’s so special and meaningful. It’s a part of them. Show them that you truly appreciate their taking that sometimes scary step to share their creative ideas with the group.

It’s all about us. You may have an amazing dancer or a future “American Idol” in your class, but try not to single out any one child too much. The children may decide that “Isaiah is the best at drawing” or “Emma’s the best singer in class.” Almost all young children are innately confident in their abilities and love to express themselves artistically, until something (often someone, unfortunately) makes them think they’re “not talented.” I try to say things like “We are such a creative group!”, “I loved all your wonderful ideas!” and “It’s so much fun to share all these great ideas with each other!” To increase creative thinking, emphasize the fun of using our minds to come up with creative ideas — not how well the finished product turns out.

Imitation is the sincerest form of interest. This may seem counterintuitive — creativity is all about individual expression, right? — but when we imitate children’s ideas, they feel empowered and affirmed. When I see a child tapping the inside of a tambourine instead of the head, for instance, I might say, “Oh, that looks interesting! Can I try that?” My students are thrilled to see me value their ideas so much, I want to try them myself. Then we are truly a community of learners, exploring the arts together and sharing the joy.

Model curiosity. “How did you think of that?” “Can you show me how to do that dance?” “What colors did you use to paint the parrot?” These kinds of questions show children that we’re curious about their creative process. We can also lead them to further exploration by saying things like, “I wonder if you could paint more jungle animals like that?” or “What’s the name of your dance?”

Add more media. If a child tells a story, ask him if he’d like to draw a picture (or many pictures) to illustrate it. If she sings an original song, ask her if she’d like to make up a dance to go along with it. Creativity is an expansive, growing process — encourage children to explore their ideas further and see where they lead!

Creativity can decrease when it’s ignored or neglected, but with encouragement, interest, and appreciation it thrives — and grows — in all children. •

© 2014 Abby Connors. All rights reserved.

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