This article of mine originally appeared in “Teaching Music,” a publication of the National Association for Music Education, in 2010.
The Sound of Creativity: Helping Children Develop Creative Thinking Skills Using Rhythm Instrument Activities
Today more than ever, our fast-changing world depends on creative thinking. Yet teaching creative thinking is not a priority in our educational system. In fact, a lot of what happens in schools actually discourages creative thinking. Students are rewarded for getting the right answers, for getting along with others, for being quiet, for meeting the teachers’ expectations, and for doing well on tests. With so much time in school being focused away from creativity, we need to balance this with time spent on developing more creative ways of thinking –when children can experience themselves as creative thinkers and where we encourage and support them. We need times when children can effectively communicate their creative ideas in a group setting.
Improvising with rhythm instruments is a great way to have this kind of “idea time” with young children. Since it can be non-verbal, or very minimally verbal, it’s very easy and non-threatening. Even very shy children or non-native speakers can fully participate and have their ideas accepted. For instance, you can play rhythm sticks while singing a song such as “The Sticks on the Bus,” sung to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus”:
The sticks on the bus go tap tap tap,
Tap tap tap, Tap tap tap,
The sticks on the bus go tap tap tap,
All through the town.
Then ask what else the sticks can do. The children may suggest ideas like scraping, sliding, rolling, and jumping – but also “criss-crossing,” twirling, tapping their toes, running, painting, swinging, and other unconventional movements.
Or put on a recording of interesting music with a compelling rhythm, such as African, Caribbean, or Latin American music. Play instruments together and explore different ways to make music. Go around the circle asking each child for an idea, or let children raise their hands to make suggestions. You’ll be delighted and inspired by your students’ unique and imaginative responses.
Unlike adults, young children don’t discriminate between noise, sound, and music – they’re eager to explore the whole spectrum of sound. They also learn across domains, and improvise with instruments in extramusical ways, such as dramatic or pretend play. And that’s one reason young children can be so creative. Pretending that a maraca is a motorcycle, for instance, might not be an appropriate response for a violinist in a concert hall, but it’s a very appropriate response for a four-year-old. It’s also a way to learn about the physical properties of the instrument and about the body’s capabilities for movement and sound.
Children’s creative thinking needs our encouragement to grow and flourish. I use a three-part model based on current research on environments and behaviors that support creative thinking in young children, and on my own experiences as a teacher and as a student.
The first part is establishing a climate of respect. Everything we do to help children respect others’ ideas, opinions and beliefs helps to establish this positive climate which is essential if we want students to feel safe contributing their ideas. Students do less creative thinking as they get older because they experience more judgment, narrow expectations, and a lack of respect for ideas that aren’t easily understood. So even if a child comes up with an idea that seems to be way off track, I’ll give them some time to explain it or develop it. Or if they have an idea that doesn’t quite fit what we’re doing – if we’re doing a song about animals and they want to be a racecar – I might say, “Well, a racecar isn’t an animal, but it sounds like a fun idea, let’s try it.” I try to keep in mind that my main goal is to help children feel comfortable contributing ideas to the group.
The second part of the model is inspiring and challenging children, stimulating their creative thinking by presenting them with novel experiences (new instruments and music), posing problems (“How could we play the bells without using our hands?”) and asking questions (“Did you play differently when the music changed?”).
The third part may be the most important, and that is responding to students’ ideas with appreciation, after they share them, and after the group has tried them out. I use the word “appreciation,” rather than praise, because research indicates that praise may actually decrease creativity. Any kind of external reward, including praise, may decrease our internal motivation to create.
What do we do if we don’t praise? Well, first of all, we listen, we watch, we pay attention to what the kids are saying and doing. And we say “thank you.” Just “thank you” – for sharing ideas and contributing.
We can say something descriptive – “that was really loud!” or “that movement was kind of tricky!” This shows that we were fully focused on their activity.
And we can talk about how much fun it is to just try out ideas – to make up stuff, to try new ways of doing things, even if they don’t look or sound that great. Because that’s one of the main messages we want them to hear – that it’s good to have a lot of ideas, and it’s fun. Using one’s imagination to create new ideas is satisfying in itself.
There’s also evidence that creative thinking skills may be a key to self-control. The ability to delay gratification, to wait, to take turns, and so on, seems to be related to the ability to imagine the thing you’re waiting for, and to be able to pass the time in a pleasant way – to be able to sing or tell a story to yourself, or just daydream.
Here are some specific strategies to help children develop creative thinking – to inspire and challenge them, and to support them in expressing their ideas.
Listen. It’s not as easy as it sounds!
Be patient – it may take a minute to a child to explain what he means.
If other children are talking, ask them to be quiet so you can hear the speaker.
A child might just verbalize an idea – for instance, “a princess.” Ask her how we could act out a princess with the instrument – don’t just jump in with an idea of your own unless she seems really stuck.
Watch. Young children may not be able to express their ideas verbally.
Describe their techniques, sounds, and movements – “you’re rubbing your shaker on your shoulder.” “Jayden is playing very softly.”
Clarify gently. For example, ask “Are the sticks jumping?” (The child might mean dancing, or something else.) Or a child might say, “an animal – you could
ask, “what kind of animal?” Again, if we just assume we know what they
mean, or jump in too soon with our own ideas, children might be less
likely to share ideas next time.
Enjoy. Smile and have fun. Really throw yourself into it.
By using activities and strategies such as these, we can teach our students more than music – we can teach them the skills to keep their creativity growing and flourishing throughout their lives.