A Thought for Thursday: Children Need to Know We Value Their Ideas

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This article of mine originally appeared in Creativity Portal in November 2010.

Children Need to Know We Value Their Ideas

By Abby Connors

It’s wonderful to stimulate and inspire creative thinking in the classroom, but we also need to show children how much we value their creative efforts. When a child, or anyone, feels that her ideas are unappreciated, sooner or later she’s going to stop sharing her ideas. And maybe even stop having as many ideas. Actually, I believe this happens with a lot of children. Somewhere along the line they learn that their ideas are silly, irrelevant or wrong, and they start leaving the creative thinking to “experts.” So showing our appreciation is crucial. But how should we show this appreciation?

How about verbal praise? Seems like a natural place to start, right? But praise is actually a form of evaluation, and it’s been well documented that being evaluated, and even the expectation or fear of being evaluated, decreases creative thinking. I’ve been teaching for many years, and I’m very confident about my creativity, and I still feel a little unnerved when a school’s director or owner hangs out in the classroom while I’m teaching. I can feel just that little bit of tension that keeps me from being as free and spontaneous as I usually am. So think of what the feeling of being evaluated might do to the creative expressiveness of a young child.

The funny thing is that even positive evaluation — praise — has this effect. The writer Alfie Kohn has written eloquently and often on this subject. Some praise is appropriate, but when we’re always saying “Good job!” or whatever, we’re making it all about gaining our approval instead of about children’s own internal motivation to think creatively and express their ideas. The more we give verbal rewards, the more children tend to lose interest in whatever they did to get the reward.

So what are some effective ways to show children how much we value their creative thinking? Well, first of all, we can express interest and attention. When a child takes a turn playing an instrument, for example, I might say, “Ooh, that was a very soft sound,” or “I see Elijah is playing the drum upside down.” It’s easy to say, “Super! Great job!” — but it’s much more meaningful to carefully pay attention to their creative efforts. It’s a huge motivator for children to feel that adults are really interested in their ideas.

Second, we can incorporate students’ ideas into our classroom routines and practices. For instance, we were putting away the sand blocks one day, and the children were placing the blocks into my bag as I held it out around the circle. A girl held her two sand blocks together in one hand and said, “Look, Miss Abby, it’s a sand block sandwich!” Well, I realized this is a very efficient, as well as fun, way to get the children to put away the sand blocks with a minimum of fuss! So now when we finish playing, I always say, “Okay, everybody make a sand block sandwich to put into the bag!” Using children’s ideas in the classroom makes them feel, correctly, that their ideas are valuable and helpful.

Third, we need to remember that our main goal is to celebrate the creative process, not the products. So I’m constantly saying things like:

  • All our ideas were so different!

  • Wow, we thought of so many ways to play the ukulele!

  • Thank you for sharing all those ideas!

  • Isn’t it fun to make up new songs? (or stories, or whatever)

  • I love when we share ideas together!

Fourth, and maybe most important, is to use nonverbal communication to show our appreciation. Research indicates that of all the ways we communicate with children, our facial expression is what means the most to them. So when you’re responding to a child’s idea, be sure to look at them, smile, maybe raise your eyebrows at a funny or surprising idea, or do what I call the Oprah face, with super-wide eyes and a dropped-jaw smile of delight. And remember to adjust your tone of voice to the temperament of the child you’re speaking to — some children love a big “WOW!” or a high-five, others respond better to a smile and a soft “Thank you!”

Remember — our goal is not only to inspire creative thinking, but to help children see themselves as creative thinkers, whose ideas are appreciated and valued. •

© 2010 Abby Connors. All rights reserved.

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