Have you ever wondered why a few children grow up to be very creative and others become very hesitant to experiment or try new things? Are only a few of us destined by our genetics to be innovative, imaginative, and creative while most of us are destined to lack the confidence and joy of new challenges and discoveries? Have you wondered how many stories a child might already have within them if only they had a way to share and elaborate on them?

If you search the membership of NAS (National Academy of Sciences) the two members listed with a last name the same as mine, happen to be our first two children. Our daughter and son grew up to be highly creative scientists, who have made numerous important biological discoveries. How and why did they become creative? Are babies born with the confidence to think scientifically and to be creative? Do parenting and teaching matter? Ours had a mother who was a nurse and had taken some basic science courses. She had an appreciation for the way western medications and medical practice works but she was not a scientist. Neither of us knew how to nurture creativity. We were amateur parents. I had studied some liberal arts and was specializing in visual art. I was starting to teach art in a large city high school. Meanwhile, at home, we had these two future scientists as toddlers. Our daughter was starting to scribble. Her brother was a bit older and was starting to draw childish pictures based on his own experiences. I wondered about the natural confidence and spontaneity and joy of preschool “artists” compared to the hesitancy, fear, and/or boredom of some of my high school art students.

We Can Learn How to Foster Children’s Creativity

As I look back, most of I what I knew about teaching came from my life as a student. My teaching habits did not come from any kind of formal teacher training. As a student, I had many different teachers. I was imitating the habits of the ones who were interesting and challenging. Now I started to wonder about all the different methods they had used on me. I wanted more ideas and better answers. I also doubted my own parents’ parenting habits.

At grad school, I learned that to foster creativity, I have to think of teaching habits that release what was already naturally within all children. I learned that many common teaching methods were trying to insert knowledge. Many teacher and parent habits were trying to only put in ideas at a time when some neurons in the child’s brain should be pulling out ideas that are self-generated by the child. When adults only show children what to ‘create’ or what their creations should look like, children are being trained to subdue their own ideas that are based on their own lives. What happens to a child’s thinking habits when teachers and parents only place their efforts trying to put ideas into the child? What if we exerted more efforts to pull from what is already available out of the child? Does a child need both kinds of learning habits?

Coauthoring Children’s Work Instead of Instructing It

Viktor Lowenfeld had discovered ways to motivate the child to allow their own ideas and images to emerge. By asking open-ended questions and enriching sensory experiences he saw creativity emerge. He discovered ways to make a child’s passive knowledge become active expression in drawing. Instead of instructing a child in drawing, he coauthored the child’s artwork by phrasing open questions that pulled out the student’s own experiences. He did not show examples to emulate. His crafts had no instructions. I had to change my teaching habits. I had to ask what animal or friend might wish to be in the child’s drawing. When drawing food, we could smell it and taste it to increase our sensory awareness. When drawing an animal, it helped to smell and touch. Experiencing real texture, or practicing the movements, motivated an expression of the liveliness of it. The same learning principles can be true for singing, for playing, for writing, building, and so on.

Children Borrow Our Adult Thinking Habits

As our future scientific preschoolers developed, I never provided them coloring books that imposed a picture on them, but they had lots of blank paper, art materials and even pottery clay—and plenty of questions. They enjoyed coloring their own drawings. We habitually “taught” them by not showing. We habitually started asking questions that modeled the natural creative thought process. One of my greatest teaching discoveries was the day I noticed that as preschoolers began to consider their drawings they began to habitually imitate my questions. They did not imitate an example, but a habit of learning what and how to draw. Had I shown an example, they would have tried to imitate that and probably they would have felt failure. I taught by habitually encouraging a search for discoveries—not an imitation of an instructed product. As they mature they feel more confident with science because the problem of ‘not knowing’ has been part of growing up. Without the curiosity of the question there is no exploration, no experiment, no discovery, and no creativity.

I hope his blog has helped produce a creative mood and method. Science is not the only vocation that expects us to habitually be creative. Are there any lives or any vocations that would not benefit from having more creative habits? What if habits of experimentation replaced some of our authoritarian habits? Can we collaborate with a child to help us gain thinking habits that help us draw, sing, dance, build, write code, write stories, or teach? Weren’t we all born with the instincts to experiment to see what works? Children are instinctively asking why and how. Should our habits be to answer with an answer, to ignore, or respond with a helpful open question? Working (playing) together is a wonderful and memorable way to do it.

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Marvin Bartel is an emeritus Professor of Art, Goshen College, Goshen, IN. He taught courses in art education, ceramics, photography, drafting and architectural design.

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