Developing creative thinking

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By James NottinghamDirector of Northumberland’s N-RAIS Project and a former childcare officer

Discover the secrets and strategies that will turn your children into confident, creative thinkers

odd one out

Children from a First School in Northumberland try various ‘oddone out’ activities

In 1991 Dr Jim Moran and his colleagues from Tennessee University published an article entitled ‘Creativity in Early Childhood Classrooms’ (DW Tegano et al, National Education Association, Washington DC). In it they stated that, according to their research, the percentage of original responses offered by children during ‘brainstorming’ activities drops from about 50 per cent among four-year-olds to 25 per cent during the primary school years. They concluded that the structured materials used in schools, and the instructions offered by teaching staff, reduced the flexibility of children and discouraged creativity.

A metaphor for creativity…

Christmas party

Imagine you’re at a party, a large Christmas party. You walk into the room and there, in front of you, are more than 200 partygoers all having a seemingly good time. What do you do? First things first; you head for the bar and get yourself a drink. Then you scan the room looking for someone – anyone – you know. You spot a colleague from work and you’re off, making a beeline for them. You greet them, perhaps overenthusiastically, and begin the process of settling in to the party, chatting with them as if you haven’t seen them all year (though of course you saw them this morning shouting at the little darlings for fluffing their Nativity Play lines). As you listen to them ‘intently’ you use your peripheral vision to spot someone else you know because you can’t stand chatting to your colleague all night and at the same time give the impression of being a social diva. Then you spot a friend of a friend. She is at the centre of a big group of interesting-looking people who are very obviously enjoying her company, judging by the amount of laughter. The next minute she is across the other side of the room being far too tactile with a very handsome young man. Before long she is chatting up the boss, no doubt putting in a good word for herself. You’re left thinking – why can’t I be more like her?

This is not my attempt at creative writing; instead, I’d like to use this as a metaphor for creativity. The friend of a friend is the creative type – the artistic or musical one who always seems to see things differently (and more interestingly); whereas you are following the ‘normal’ patterns of behaviour, making connections in the same way that most others do, thinking the same way, acting the same way. And that makes you normal. But not creative.

Every time we make a connection, other possible connections are neglected. So, when you make a beeline for your colleague, you neglect the possibility of making a beeline for the handsome stranger in the corner. Similarly, in the brain, every new experience or thought causes some neurons to connect and others to deteriorate. Over time, as we make similar connections, patterns are formed then reinforced and, before we know it, we’re ‘stuck in our ways’. But it doesn’t have to be like this. If we systematically look for new, and different, connections we can learn to be more creative and more interesting.

Creativity is developed by making connections. Unusual connections. It comes from laying aside the rules – even for just a little while – so that we are able to reach beyond logic and structure and tap into our imaginations more easily. This is the place where we store our sense of the ridiculous, our sense of being able to do the impossible and ultimately, our ability to see things differently, to find new and usable solutions.

Popular misconceptions about creativity include the idea that it is a gift ‘given’ to a few, and the notion that it is about the arts. True, the arts are creative and some people do seem to be more naturally creative, but this is not the whole story. Creativity can be developed in everyone and can be taught by people with no natural flair for music or the arts. And a good starting point is to encourage diverse connections to be made.

How do we encourage creativity?

  • Curiosity killed the cat We often discourage children by saying ‘Curiosity killed the cat’, yet cats use their curiosity to determine what is safe and what is dangerous. Creativity starts with curiosity and curiosity begins with questions. Encourage children to ask questions.
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