A Thought for Thursday: How Should We Teach Creative Thinking? Ask a Four-Year-Old


The following article of mine originally appeared in
Teacher’s Net Gazette in November 2011.

How Should We Teach Creative Thinking? Ask a Four-Year-Old

By Abigail Flesch Connors

Young children are the “experts” when it comes to creative thinking. Here are some tips I’ve learned from the young children I’ve taught to foster creative thinking in students of all ages.

I have the privilege of working in the most creative, intellectually stimulating environment you can possibly imagine. I teach preschoolers.

Since I began teaching music and dance to young children, almost twenty years ago, I’ve been blown away on a daily basis by their seemingly limitless capacity to invent songs, stories, games, and jokes; to endlessly and exuberantly explore the world around them; to make fresh and unexpected connections in their questions and observations; and to discover novel, ingenious solutions to everyday problems and conflicts. In fact, young children are as creative in their thinking as adults are
conformist and conventional.

Why is creativity training for adults a billion-dollar industry? Why do corporations need to send their employees to “creativity seminars” to get them to have an original idea? Aren’t these uncreative adults the same people who were creative geniuses in preschool? Shouldn’t they be even more creative as adults?

Our schools are failing to encourage and develop creativity. We need to make creative thinking skills a priority and nurture children’s natural creative abilities.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not against standards, tests, and accountability. I’m a big fan of literacy and basic skills. (Full disclosure: my father, Rudolf Flesch, wrote the classic Why Johnny Can’t Read  which promoted research-based phonics-first reading instruction way back in 1955, so literacy education is a cause very dear to my heart.) As Bill Gates has said, “If you don’t know how to read, it doesn’t matter how creative you are.”

Fortunately, it isn’t an either-or situation. We can make creative thinking development a part of every day’s curriculum. How? Let’s go to the experts. Here are some tips I’ve learned from the very creative four-year-olds I work with:

  1. Rule Number One: Have fun. In the middle of what I thought was a delightful song about rhyming, a little girl raised her hand with a troubled expression. “Miss Abby,” she told me kindly but seriously, “this isn’t fun.” I dropped the activity like a hot potato. Fun doesn’t mean entertaining students; it means engaging their minds in activities that challenge, delight, and involve them. When it comes to creative thinking, if it isn’t fun, don’t do it!

  2. Encourage lots of questions. The obsessive curiosity of young children is legendary. It seems like every sentence is a question, and every question starts with “Why?” What’s interesting to me is that this curious stage ends. Older children no longer ask questions incessantly. Is it because they’ve learned everything they wanted to know? Or is it because they’ve learned that adults don’t have the time to respond? Schools value easy answers, not hard questions. But asking hard questions is how we develop intelligence and creativity.

  3. Ideas: The more the merrier. As Linus Pauling said, “The way to havea good idea is to have lots of ideas.” Young children know this instinctively. When I’m asking them to share ideas, whether for dance movements, words or phrases to add to songs, or ways to play musical instruments, they never want to stop. They’re not just raising their hands, they’re jumping up and down, shouting, “Me! Me! I have another idea!” As children get older, they learn to stop when they have one “okay” idea, instead of stretching their minds to reach for more. We need to celebrate the natural brainstorming of young children and encourage it all through their school years.

  4. The best things in life are messy! And loud! And time-consuming! And don’t fit in with the lesson plan! So many times, I’ve impulsively ditched my lesson plan and jumped on board with some child’s idea for an activity. “Let’s all pretend to be the kittens in the story!” “Can we see what would happen if we took it apart?” “What if we made all the puppets talk at once?” I’ve never regretted these spontaneous decisions. That’s when the best creative stuff happens.

  5. Everything is a toy. Don’t trust adults when it comes to deciding what’s a toy and what isn’t – remember, these are the people who think dandelions are weeds. I’ve brought coffee cans, Styrofoam egg cartons, acorns, sticks, corrugated cardboard, oatmeal boxes, plastic price tags, applesauce and yogurt cups, pine cones, and stuff that I don’t even know what it is to my young students, and they’ve created musical instruments, puppets, and all sorts of amazing toys. If it’s clean and safe, it’s raw material for creative play (which is what adults call children’s creative work).

  6. Get out of the way. Respect the creative process. You wouldn’t tell Jonathan Franzen how to write or Alicia Keys how to sing, but we interfere with children’s creativity all the time. We tell them how to dance, how to draw a picture, and how to bang on a drum. We train them to distrust their own creativity. Let them try new things, struggle, change their minds. That’s how learn to see themselves as creative thinkers.

  7. It’s not about you. And it’s not about your evaluation of their ideas. Even positive evaluation (including the ubiquitous “Good job!”) decreases children’s internal motivation and focuses them on receiving more praise. When a child shares an idea, say “Thank you,” or tell them what interests you about it, or use it as a jumping-off point for a discussion or activity.

  8. You don’t have to be a four-year-old to be creative. Be a model of a creative, curious learner. Don’t be afraid to look silly or awkward. Dance, sing, draw, make a silly joke or tell a story. Your students will love it and they’ll learn that they don’t have to be perfect or “talented” to experience the fun of creative thinking. (See Rule Number One.)

Abigail Flesch Connors is an early-childhood arts specialist, presenter, and author. Her new book is Teaching Creativity: Supporting, Valuing, and Inspiring Young Children’s Creative Thinking (Whitmore Books, 2010).


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