Sunday, October 1, 2017

Ignite creative fire in your gifted child

Most toddlers and preschool-aged children are creative and passionate about their play. They become engrossed in what they love, and learning is fun. But once they adjust to the structure of school, some lose their creative passion, and focus, instead, on grades and performance.

Gifted children, in particular, thrive when given free rein to express their creative interests. Intrinsically motivated and intellectually curious, when comfortable expressing their creative ideas and inspirations, they engage fully in school. When these instincts are thwarted by too many rules, boredom in the classroom, or an emphasis on outcome and performance, they may comply, but their creative drive is sacrificed.

In a recent commentary, "Educators should steal Google's secrets about creativity," author Matt Presser raised the bar for schools. He highlighted how Google's policy of allowing engineers to spend 20% of their time on projects that interest them can be an example for educators to follow.
"The traditional method of mass education starts with a curriculum and fits it to students's needs. Too often, students' interests exist separately from school, and they complete assignments for their teacher's eyes only. Personal passion is too often missing from our classrooms.
As teachers, we should approach education the other way around: by starting with our students and then shaping a curriculum around them. When we give our students real responsibility to tackle problems connected to their interests, they flourish."

Researcher Beth Hennessey also emphasized intrinsic motivation as an essential component of creativity among gifted children, and pointed out how the school environment can sap this drive. She noted:
"In their present form, the majority of American classrooms, from preschools through high schools and colleges, are fraught with killers of intrinsic interest and creativity. Nowhere is this situation more dire than in the gifted and talented classroom or "pull-out" program where the promotion of students' intrinsic motivation and creativity of performance must be top priority."

More recently, researchers Gotlieb and colleagues have emphasized the importance of social-emotional imagination and creativity. They point out that most school culture is not geared toward creativity:
"There is a fundamental tension between the expression of creativity, which requires breaking consensus to push forth new ideas, and organizational culture (whether corporate or school based), which values individuals who conform to the group. We argue for a need to shift the school culture to accommodate creative expression."

If your child is in a school that encourages creative expression and intrinsic motivation, you are fortunate, If not, you have your job cut out for you, as you wade through the maze of advocating for changes. But you still can foster an environment of creativity in the home. 

Here are some tips for encouraging your child's creativity:

1. Process, not product

Emphasize the activity, not the outcome. Encourage your child to focus on what engrosses her, sparks her interest, ignites her curiosity. Help her see that creativity tends to follow a zigzag path: Role model that you are willing to try new things, and take on challenges that are difficult and require learning from scratch. Children follow their parents' lead, and in fact, a recent study found that even one-year-old children of creative parents show evidence of greater creativity. Get messy; get confused; lose your way; find a new path; discover great possibilities.

2. Shake up routine

Children need routines and traditions for structure and a sense of safety. But they also thrive when there is flexibility and creative divergence from these routines. Take a different route to the store. Eat breakfast food for dinner. Camp out in your backyard. Trying something different not only sheds light on new perspectives, but also demonstrates flexibility and creative thinking for your children. They also benefit from plenty of unstructured, unplanned, open-ended time where they must rely on their imagination.

3. Innovative problem-solving

Remind your child that creativity can occur anywhere by supporting the concept of creative and innovative problem-solving. Teach your child to brainstorm, by coming up with as many ideas as possible to approach a given problem. The more outlandish and creative, the better. Then, encourage him to narrow down and eliminate some of the options, based on how effectively he might solve the problem. Helping your child find new and different approaches to solving problems or formulating ideas encourages creative thinking along with a sense of accomplishment.

4. Any activity can be creative

Creativity is much more than art, music, poetry and dance. Sure, these activities and classes might be fun and inspirational for some children, but fall flat for others. When children have little artistic inclination, they sometimes falsely assume they are not creative. We must remind them that ANY activity, school subject or career can be creative - it depends upon their approach, perspective-taking, an innovative outlook, and openness to new ideas. You can reinforce this by encouraging creative approaches to even routine tasks. This could involve anything from folding laundry to organizing toys differently. This helps your child see that creativity can occur anywhere, in any situation, and at any time.

5. Banish perfectionism

Perfectionistic thinking can stop creativity cold in its tracks. Just try to draw a picture if you expect perfection. Either you will be paralyzed before you even start, or give up quickly along the way. Torn art projects, smashed Lego structures, and instruments stashed away in closets often result from unmet high expectations. Help your child focus on short-term goals and what she enjoys and is learning from the process of exploration and creativity. Keeping a portfolio that demonstrates her progress and growth over time can help when frustration builds. And of course, comment on the process of discovery rather than the outcome.

6. Support the traits that support creativity

There have been many accounts of personality characteristics associated with creativity (e.g., see Clark). Researchers Furst and colleagues have categorized three overriding "traits" common among creative individuals. These include plasticity (an openness to experience and exploration), divergence (non-conformity and impulsivity), and convergence (conscientiousness and precision). It would seem that plasticity and divergence are necessary for initiating creative ideas, but convergence is needed to narrow down and follow through on them. This theory suggests a complex range of skills that are required to initiate and complete a creative project. 

While you can't force creativity, you certainly can encourage openness to experience, a fearless drive to explore and try new things, some non-conformity and a healthy questioning of norms and values. Support for disciplined focus, follow-though and conscientious behavior is also important. This fits with research on the role of practice for those who achieve success in creative arts fields. Creative and artistic talent is a start, but disciplined practice is necessary for success and satisfaction in these fields of study.

7. Encourage reflection

Ask your child to reflect upon questions that arise and generate ideas and solutions - before you rush in to help. If he struggles, you can brainstorm with him and model how to explore and expand upon ideas. Eliminate phrases from the household such as: "this is the way we always do it," or "there is only one right answer." Even if you disagree with his solution, you will have encouraged greater self-awareness and exploration. Gotlieb and colleagues also emphasize the importance of reflection for building creativity among adolescents:
"Rather than expecting students to be constantly externally focused, we need to capitalize on the contributions of their internal reflective processes. Teachers, parents, and caring adults can do so by facilitating conversations in which students contemplate their long-term goals and steps involved in achieving them."

8. Fight for change at school

Yes, advocacy can be tiresome. You may have tried before, and perhaps hit a brick wall. But encouraging creative exploration will benefit every child in the classroom, not just gifted students. Hennessey aptly noted that "students' own intrinsic interest, curiosity, and excitement about learning must not take a back seat to concerns about grades or the need to outperform one's peers." She emphasized the importance of allowing students to feel in control of their learning, to become more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, and to avoid succumbing to extrinsic incentives within the system.

Help your child discover the joy of creativity!

While not every creative child is intellectually gifted, it is likely that those identified as gifted have creative potential. Although some might disagree, it would seem that unless rigid standards, perfectionism, or a drive for extrinsic rewards have robbed them of their intrinsic motivation, most gifted children possess this creative potential. They are deep, inquisitive thinkers, question everything, think "outside the box" and see a range of possibilities in most situations. They are often highly sensitive and have a profound sense of fairness and justice. They can size up other people and most situations quickly and accurately. Let's give them the freedom to explore and expand upon their creative nature at home, and insist on opportunities for creative expression within the schools.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Creativity and Productivity. To see more blogs in the hop, click on:

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  1. Great post as always, Gail. And three cheers for unstructured time! There's been a lady on NPR promoting her book "Bored and Brilliant." I thought, "darn, there goes my New York Times bestseller." I guess she had more unstructured time to get it written than I did. ;) But I'm glad other people are catching on to how important this is. Maybe we'll even manage to shift our frenetic culture a bit in a healthier, more creative direction!

    I also think your highlighting divergence as well as convergence is great. Divergent thinking is the one that tends to be overlooked and is challenging, but as a natural divergent thinker who nevertheless learned the value of convergence in a school system dedicated to memorizing the right answers, I'd also like to relearn convergence. It IS valuable, though it's only one side of the coin. I wonder how early a child can be taught this? Probably pretty early!

    1. Counternarration, Thank you for your thoughtful feedback. Maybe you can eventually find your unstructured time for that bestseller after all!

  2. This is great! Especially appreciate the ideas on problem solving and banishing perfectionism. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Heather. I'm glad it was useful.

  3. This is fantastic! I particularly value the suggestions on problem-solving and overcoming perfectionism. Thank you!
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