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Creative Expression and Child Development

Updated: Mar 23, 2022

At a recent get-together of parents, teachers, and community members interested in supporting the arts, we had a dynamic discussion about the importance of creativity in child development. Those of us from Church Street School for Music and Art stressed the three key reasons for the importance of creativity in our music and art classes – to introduce students to artistic process, to build their self-awareness and self-confidence, and to help them find their unique artistic voice.

All of those in attendance lamented the current state of education that emphasizes didactic approaches, memorization and test performance. We all agreed that such traditional approaches to education are more a source of anxiety for kids than of learning. We pondered together how to move the current culture of education forward, from the darkness of a system that focuses on performance and competition, into the light of a future where creativity and new ideas are prized. I think parents everywhere are pondering these same things.

Creativity and Critical Thinking

A recent article in the New York Times described new academic courses and departments at colleges in the U.S. dedicated to building creative skills in college students. Universities are beginning to recognize that the marketplace is demanding more attention to creativity. Curiosity, adaptability, willingness to break cultural norms without concern about looking “foolish”, are all found to be central to critical thinking and “on-demand inventiveness” in today’s market.

If we as parents of young children immerse our infants, toddlers and preschoolers in open environments that support creative development now, maybe our children won’t need a crash course in creativity when they get to college!

The Development of Creativity

Child development researcher Alison Gopnik recently reviewed studies of preschoolers that compared direct instruction to more open-ended teaching techniques that support creative play. Children were presented with a toy that they had never seen before. The teacher demonstrated how to use the toy to one group of children; in the other group the teacher pretended she didn’t know how to use the toy and encouraged the children to figure it out themselves.

The researchers found that the children who were encouraged to explore the toy on their own showed longer attention spans and discovered more hidden features of the toy than those that were ‘shown’ how to use it by the teacher. Explicit teaching may help children get to answers more quickly, but it also makes them less likely to create new and unexpected solutions, and they lose interest faster.

Creativity and Confidence

One of the humbling responsibilities of parenting is to protect this exquisite openness in our children, while at the same time protecting them from harm. We want our children to be eager to explore, discover, and take risks, and at the same time to be aware of their own safety. It is a delicate balance to be sure.

Children who have had the opportunity to grow and thrive in an environment that supports curiosity, discovery, and creative expression have more self-confidence. They are more self-aware. This may be the most important gift we can give them as they go forward in this complex and ever changing world.

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