An important part of young children’s creativity is that “the young child is not bothered by inconsistencies, departures from convention, nonliteralness … which often results in unusual and appealing juxtapositions and associations (Gardner 1993, 288).” Unfortunately, we as teachers sometimes work against this, steering children right back to literalness and conventionality.
A few years ago, I was singing “Old MacDonald” with a group of four-year-olds and asking them for suggestions for animals to sing about. We’d been through the cow, the pig, and more of the usual animals, and then one boy raised his hand with a giggly, excited smile and said, “Tiger!” His regular teacher, who was joining us that day, said, “No, tigers live in the jungle, Michael. Can you think of another farm animal?”
Michael thought for a moment and then said, “Sheep.” We continued singing “Old MacDonald,” with the children suggesting only farm animals. There were no more “out-of-the-barn” ideas.
Michael had learned some information, but an opportunity to encourage his (and the other students’) creative thinking had gone by. Imagination had left the building.
Sometimes we don’t want children to be too silly, and that’s perfectly valid. Sometimes we want them to settle down, or listen, or play by the rules, or learn how to do something. And that’s fine. But silliness is very closely related to creativity, and every time we reject silliness, we inhibit creativity. So we have to be careful.
In the case of the tiger at the farm, we can actually encourage creative silliness, while still respecting reality. When a child suggests a tiger (or a bear, or a dinosaur) for “Old MacDonald,” I widen my eyes and say, “Oh my gosh! A tiger! This is a really scary farm!” and we sing in a silly scared voice (except for the roar, naturally). After the song, I might ask, “Where do tigers really live? – Yes, in the jungle, of course!” This way, I accept the child’s creative idea, but make it clear that we’re crossing the border into Sillyland.
Letting children be silly is one of the greatest things we can do for them. They love it, and it’s one of the ways they experience themselves as creative thinkers.
- Accept “nonsensical” responses in a way that distinguishes between sense and nonsense but still affirms the child’s creative thinking.
- When children share “silly” ideas, join in the fun and show that you value their humor.
- When you’re unsure how to respond to an unconventional response, ask yourself, “What’s more important right now, teaching the facts, or supporting this child’s creative thinking?”
- If other children protest the acceptance of unconventional responses (I’ve known some very literal-minded children), talk about how silly jokes or rhymes that don’t really “make sense” can be fun.
This piece is adapted from an essay in my book “Teaching Creativity” (Whitmore Books, 2010), available on Amazon.