Fostering Creativity – A Balancing Act

Originally Published: February 2000

An environment that encourages creativity is one that includes opportunities for children to explore and discover, and offers a broad base of experiences followed by opportunities for imitation. That, I think, is common knowledge. Another very important ingredient, however, may frequently be overlooked—the specific training in skills that will allow students to execute their creative ideas.

When I was in school in the 60’s, a popular teaching method in art classes was to let students choose projects and work on their own with only an occasional comment from the teacher. “Doing your own thing” was “in.” That meant learning by trial and error instead of having the advantage of the teacher’s expertise. We were constantly called upon to “reinvent the wheel,” as the saying goes.

Needless to say, I did not use that method when I went into teaching. When my own children were young, I gave them the opportunity to discover the colors on a color wheel by mixing primary colors, but told them directly about using a horizon line, taking them outside to direct their observations. And when they created stories that were simply long descriptions, I introduced story structure by telling them they needed to have a problem and its solution (a simple plot), pointing out examples in stories that I read to them.

Children enjoy being creative, but not “corrected,” which is often how they perceive any suggestions about what they are doing. Therefore, even though you may give them some direction as they work on projects, it is important to include lessons that lay a foundation and provide specific practice in skill areas they need to develop. In other words, while a comment or two at the time can be helpful, it’s sometimes less effective to stop a child in the middle of a project to teach him a technique that could have been included in a background lesson preceding the activity.

Basic art skills are useful for all children. They learn to control their drawings with practice tracing and copying, working on even size and spacing in handwriting, and, at about age ten, training in drawing realistically. Experience should also include drawing designs or charts using a straight-edge and compass. Practice cutting on a line with scissors, and eventually using an X-Acto knife, scoring heavy paper or cardboard before folding, and using a straight-edge to fold a seam neatly and to smooth over items pasted are also technical skills that allow students to make better looking posters, book covers, displays, and dioramas. So, while letting youngsters color, or cut and paste, ready-made pictures is not considered particularly artistic or creative, it should not be discouraged. After all, it gives them a chance to build fine motor control essential for making pictures of their own.

A hands-on approach to science can also build understanding and reasoning skills useful for all children. The budding inventor, though, will need plenty of practice using the scientific method to draw on as he matures. The choice of experiments can be something discussed in order to insure interest, but the follow-up discussion of the conclusions should be teacher-directed in order to help the student recognize that certain results can be considered fact. For example, he can place one plant in the window and an identical plant in a closet to discover what will happen if a plant does not get any light. The conclusion, green plants need light, is something stated in primary science books—something he can count on. Allowing him to discover that fact gives him an opportunity to use the scientific method, feel a bit like a real biologist, and then remember the conclusion later as it is needed.

Of course, everything doesn’t have to be learned by experimentation. Digging through authoritative sources to find answers to questions will also give a broad base of potentially useful information. Television and movies often put the hero in a dangerous situation in which he cleverly remembers facts about basic science in order to escape. For example, he might mix some common household products to create an explosion or a knock-out gas. On the other hand, some adults apparently never saw the relevance of science classes. They can occasionally be seen smoking cigarettes while pumping their gas.

The aspiring composer may be clanging pot covers as a toddler. Exposing him to all types of music, letting him move to the beat, reproduce what he hears, and create his own simple melodies are all important for his developing ear. Eventually, though, so is formal training, which should include music history and theory. While it might be pointed out that some popular musicians have had no formal training and can’t read a note of music, they have spent time analyzing the type of music they play, even if it only took the form of carefully listening to the recordings of those they wished to emulate. Typically, however, when such an untutored musician ventures into the area of orchestration, his lack of technical skills limits his ability to express himself and he must rely on the expertise of trained musicians to score his work. In a way, this would be like a painter who gets to a point in a painting where his lack of training keeps him from expressing what his mind sees; so, he brings in a trained artist to paint it for him—a strange situation, indeed. Hopefully, this exaggerated example makes it easier to see why formal training and an understanding of history and theory are important in almost any creative endeavor: painting, sculpture, architecture, music—even inventing a new product for the marketplace.

It’s easy to think that a completely free, or student-directed, approach will somehow increase creativity. Too often, though, it just leaves students without the ability to competently execute what may be bright and original ideas. Since they frequently don’t realize what they don’t know, they pursue information without also developing important skills. At six my son was disappointed that his violin playing did not sound like Heifetz’. Little by little he learned technique, while at the same time being encouraged by polishing simple songs and composing his own melodies. At seventeen he was an accomplished musician—even performing with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra at a festival in Moscow televised around the world. By then, he was able to write down and polish the more complicated pieces running through his mind.

It requires a balancing act to prevent discouragement while developing ability, but it’s worth the effort—creative expression without the right tools ultimately limits a child’s ability to accomplish his vision. Don’t let education turn into a race to memorize information in textbook after textbook. Instead, include time and training for children to find creative ways to use information and develop the skills they need to express their ideas.