'Help your child imagine new ideas, solve problems'

Alane Jordan Starko, a professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Eastern Michigan University and author of Creativity in the Classroom, tells why creativity will continue to be valued

By Alane Jordan Starko

'Help your child imagine new ideas, solve problems'


Q: Why is creativity important?

I don’t think there has ever been a time when creativity was more important than it is now – our world is changing so quickly. My younger friends find it hard to believe that I grew up without a computer, or a cell phone!

I began my career teaching in a rural school. As a young teacher writing on the chalkboard, I could never have imagined the resources I use in teaching today. In the same way, we are preparing children to live in a world we cannot yet imagine. Because we can’t teach them all they will need to know in that world, we must help them learn how to envision new ideas and solve problems. With those skills, they will be ready for tomorrow’s adventures.

Q: Will creativity become more valuable in the future?

Yes, absolutely! We need creativity to develop and use new technologies. But we also need creativity to help us deal with the problems that new technology brings.

For example, as scientists become more skilled at manipulating human genes, we need minds that are both wise and creative to help us solve the ethical dilemmas raised by such advances. As our children spend more time interacting online rather than face-to-face, we need creative individuals to help us find ways to nurture human connections. And amidst this change, we need artists and storytellers to help us think, and make sense of it all.

Q: Do you think that creativity is on the decline?

That’s an interesting question. While I don’t think we have enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion, there is some evidence that in the US, young people’s scores on creativity tests have declined over the last 20 years.

I am a bit concerned that the decline in creativity scores has come just at the time when education in the US is focusing on high-stakes achievement tests. I don’t know for certain how one relates to the other, but I believe it’s important enough to investigate further.

Q: So how do we teach our children to think differently?

Teach your child divergent thinking – that is, thinking of many different ideas, and looking at problems from different perspectives.

I often tell children, “Your first idea is practically never your best idea.” Thinking of different ideas, and then choosing the best one, makes it more likely that we will generate a creative option.

Q: What kind of toys help children to be creative?

I feel that the very best toys can be things you might otherwise throw away. Boxes, cardboard, or even (for older children) broken appliances that can be taken apart and analyzed, all become prime materials for exploration. I still recall my delight as a child using boxes to transform a closet into my imaginary spaceship. No expensive toy could have been better!

Q: Who are your favourite creative thinkers?

There are some well-known people whose creative works I admire. I think Julie Taymor’s Broadway conception of The Lion King, using life-sized puppets to portray animals, is brilliant. Yet so many essential creative leaps happen anonymously. Who was the person who first recognized that acting out stories for an audience can make stories come alive? We don’t know, but that person’s creativity made Julie Taymor’s work possible.

As I type on my MacBook and answer my iPhone, I am grateful for Steve Jobs’ visionary innovation.Yet even those enormous leaps stand on the shoulders of others we know less well.

Again, consider Ada Lovelace. This 19th century woman envisioned a future in which machines would do more than computation. Can you imagine the reaction when she suggested machines might one day write music? And yet, today they do! The more I open my eyes, the more I understand that all the human endeavors around me are built on creativity over time, coming in leaps large and small. So many of those creators will never be known!

When trying to come up with new ideas, ask open-ended questions like these:

  1. How many different ideas can we generate to solve the problem? How many different things can your child make with a box? How many things around the house can be used as a paintbrush?
  2. Can we substitute something different for something familiar? If your child reads about a science experiment in which coloured water goes up a celery stalk, instead of duplicating the experiment, try substituting other vegetables with stems. Do they all work the same way? Or, how can you vary a familiar recipe to make something new and delicious?
  3. Can we combine two things in a new way? Combination is useful in inventing. A number of inventions have come about by combining things — like telephones and cameras. Look around the house for items that can be combined to make something new—real or imaginary. Or combine two games to make a new one. Imagine combining a board game and a running game. What is the result?
  4. How would this look from a different point of view? Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs tells a traditional fairy tale from the perspective of the villain, the wolf. Of course, the story becomes completely different. Imagine your child’s favourite story told from a different perspective. Or ask your child to draw the world from the point of view of an insect, or a tree!