Ask Susan: Are My Children Not Creative Enough?

Dear Susan

I worry that my children aren’t imaginative and creative enough. My elder son is six years old. Yesterday he and his friend were playing in our backyard. His friend pretended to be a giant dinosaur, and all my son said was, “there’s no dinosaur”. He never pretend plays, in fact, he seldom plays. He watches some TV. His younger brother seems to be the same. What’s wrong with them?

Shannon


Dear Shannon,

I understand your concern, and I commend you for seeking advice. Let me share some popular thoughts on the subject before I offer my suggestions as to how you may approach the development of your children’s creativity:

Pretend play, also called make-believe play and imaginary play, has been regarded as crucial to children’s healthy development. The benefits, apparently, are many:

  • Practicing listening, looking and talking, develops language skills. It also develops an understanding of what is being communicated through body language such as smiles and nodding.
  • Practicing negotiation skills, turn taking and sharing, develops social skills.
  • Pretend scenarios often involve problem solving and the ability to infer what the next action in the game should be; both problem solving and creating these inferred actions, develop reasoning skills.
  • Understanding and expressing their feelings through the re-enactment of certain experiences, and taking on roles that encourage discipline and empathy aid emotional development.
  • Because children can be anyone and do anything in the pretend world, pretend play encourages imagination and creativity.
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However, despite over 40 years of research examining how pretend play might help development, there is little evidence that it has a crucial role, and that pretend play is, at most, just one of many routes to a positive developmental outcome. (Lillard, A. S, ‘The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence’, Psychological Bulletin, August 2012).

Even the evidence that pretend play enhances creativity, which seems logical, is not convincing. Sure, creative children tend to engage in pretend play, but it really hasn’t been shown that pretend play creates creative children.

What the research therefore suggests, is that pretend play is not the only road that leads to Rome, and in some cases doesn’t lead to Rome at all. If you are concerned about your children’s imagination and creativity, there are other and better ways to develop these skills. Below is one example.

Creativity and creative thinking

When we think of all the skills a child needs to learn to be able to succeed academically, we often think of reading, writing, concentration, math and so on. However, one of the most important skills children need to develop is their creativity. Creativity is what children use to write stories, solve problems, play music, make arts and crafts and even perform complex math operations.

Creativity is the bringing into being of something which did not exist before, either as a product, a process or a thought. Creative thinking is the process which we use when we come up with a new idea. Creative thinking is the ability to look at a problem in many different ways. This might involve seeing a different way to do something, generating new ideas, or using materials in unique ways. Basic to being a creative thinker is a willingness to take risks, to experiment, and even to make mistakes.

The belief that an individual is either creative or not creative is still widely represented. But this misconception is now changing. In recent years more evidence that creativity and creative thinking skills can be taught, learned and practiced has appeared. Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and author of inGENIUS: A Crash Course on Creativity, confirms that “everyone can increase his or her creativity, just as everyone can increase his or her musical or athletic ability, with appropriate training and focused practice”.

The purpose of the exercises below is to stimulate original, creative thinking. The first exercise teaches creative thinking on a concrete level, the second one on a schematic level, and the third on an abstract level. Move to the schematic level once your son has mastered creative thinking on a concrete level, and to the abstract level once he has mastered creative thinking on a schematic level.

Exercise one

In this exercise, a concrete object, e.g. a large colored Lego block, must be described. Take the block, show it to your child and ask, “Can you describe this block to me?” He must try to name as many details of the block as possible. There are no right or wrong answers.

Should he get stuck, or find it difficult to describe the block, leading questions could be set, for example:

  • What do the edges look like?
  • How many edges are there?
  • What do the sides look like?
  • How many sides are there?
  • How many corners are there?
  • Is the block large or small?
  • Is it light or heavy?
    .

After the description, your son must try to apply what he has observed. This can be done by setting questions like:

  • What can one use the block for? (For example, the edges can be used to draw straight lines; it can be used as a container for things like sand, water, bird seed, etc.)
  • If you could change the block in some way, or add something to it, what can it then be used for? (For example, by putting a piece of sponge into it, it can serve as a pincushion; by gluing such blocks together, one can build a doll house, etc.)
  • Of what material, other than plastic, could one make such blocks? (For example, wood, glass, clay, etc.)
    .

Any other suitable object can be used for the exercise, e.g. a pencil, a pen, a paper clip, a matchbox, etc.

Exercise two

In this exercise, show some schematic drawing or diagram to your son. He must again give a description of the drawing, and afterward he must name as many things as possible which the drawing may represent.

A circle may, for example, be drawn on a piece of paper. To describe it, your child may say that it is a circle, that it is round, that it consists of an endless curved line, that a radius drawn from any position on the curve will always be of the same length, etc.

After the description, he may say what the diagram can present. In the case of a circle, he may say that it could represent a ball, the earth, the sun, a plate, a saucer, the brim of a cup, the letter O, etc.

Exercise three

In this exercise, the purpose is to stimulate abstract thinking. Therefore, only verbal stimuli are used, and no concrete objects or schematic drawings, as in the previous exercises.

Examples are as follows:

  • Name as many things as you can that are red (or any other color).
  • Name as many things as you can that can make a person happy  (or cross, etc.)
  • In what way can a person react when he loses his temper? Think of as many as possible.
  • What emotions do you associate with the color red (or any other color).
  • Try to think of as many things as possible that can be done with a stone, or stones (or any other object or objects).
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Best wishes,

Susan


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More about Susan

Susan is an educational specialist in the field of learning problems and dyslexia and has a B.A. Honors in Psychology and B.D. degree from the University of Pretoria. Early in her professional career Susan was instrumental in training over 3000 teachers and tutors, providing them with the foundational and practical understanding to facilitate cognitive development amongst children who struggle to read and write. With over 25 years of research to her name Susan conceptualized the Edublox teaching and learning methods that have helped thousands of children who were struggling academically to read, learn and achieve. In 2007, Susan opened the first Edublox reading and learning clinic and now there are 25 Edublox clinics internationally. Her proudest moments are when she sees a child who had severe learning difficulties come top of their class after one or two years at Edublox. Susan always takes time to collect the ‘hero’ stories of learners whose self-esteem is lifted as their marks improve.