Building Creativity in Kids: 5 Proven Strategies

Creative thinking is the key to problem-solving. Here’s how to foster creativity at home.

Prisma Staff
December 20, 2022

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An abstract concept, creativity is often associated with geniuses, artists and uninhibited children left alone with scissors and a cardboard box. Myths swirl around creativity: It’s an inborn gift. It’s got nothing to do with ‘real-life.’ It vanishes with age.

If you’ve ever witnessed a child’s creativity - whether it’s dress-up and imaginative play, tinkering with gadgets (even when they’re not supposed to), or designing towers with Legos - you know there is an instinctive component to creative play, some sort of magic that happens when the right kids in the right context light the right spark.

And it seems to happen easier for some than for others.

So why is it that one child sees a pile of building blocks and instantly envisions a futuristic skyline, and others look at the same pile and announce, “I’m bored!”?

Researchers — from psychologists to neuroscientists to educators — are showing that creativity is not a fixed trait. Nor is it a fleeting stage of child development, destined to evaporate during adolescence for those who are not “naturally” creative. Like its counterpart — critical thinking skills (stay tuned for our upcoming post...) — creativity is something that can be fostered, a muscle that we can strengthen — given the proper conditions.


What do we mean by creativity?

More than just art projects, creativity is about making connections, problem-solving, and finding the spark to present a new idea. (More on ‘original ideas’ soon.)

Once you broaden the definition, creative activities are not about the medium you’re using or the issue you’re tackling. When you...

...focus more on process than product,

...respect the possibility of multiple approaches to a single problem,

...and when you get inspired by the world around you,

you’re using — and building — your creative thinking skills.

Creativity is as relevant in STEM fields as it is in the arts; it’s as much about self-expression as it is about empathy; and it can empower you to develop fantasy worlds and to dig deep into the world that’s right at your fingertips.

Creativity, as we understand it at Prisma, is also the most profound way to demonstrate mastery of material. We take a constructionist philosophy, which means that you haven’t truly learned something unless you can externalize it: It’s never about regurgitating information, it’s about absorbing new ideas and then using them to create something of your own that you then share with others.

Develop a creative mindset at home

1. Provide inspiration

Creativity is a form of self-expression, but the creative process doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The most creative people have the deepest and widest range of knowledge. Everyone takes inspiration from somewhere when they're coming up with new ideas.

Whether it’s people-watching in a new part of town, strolling through a new ecosystem, or tasting a new genre of book, film or tv — expose kids to new and different things from a young age.  If they are always in the same environment, always reading and watching the same things, playing the same games, and interacting with the same people, they're not going to have that new well of inspiration from which to draw.

New and different experiences, exposure to new and different ideas, preps the soil of creativity.

2. Teach them to ‘steal like an artist’

Inspiration can come from anywhere, but who better to learn from than our favorite artists, inventors and performers? Encourage remixing and copying the songs, books and images your kids love; it’s how they’ll learn creative techniques.

In our cycle theme dedicated to creativity, “Remix,” inspired by ideas such as those in Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” and Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like an Artist", we bring those ideas into the curriculum. We teach kids the difference between plagiarism (passing off someone else’s ideas as your own) and inspiration (learning by making an attributed mashup of somebody’s else’s ideas).

Try these activities inspired by real Prisma projects in our “Remix” theme to ‘steal like an artist’:

-Take inspiration from two different artists or musicians to create your own work of art.

-Upcycle by taking materials meant for one purpose and transforming them into something else.

-Create fan fiction based on a favorite movie or book (write a prequel or sequel, retell the same story from a different perspective).

3. Offer tools for experimentation

For kids who already know what they like, it’s important to shake up the snow globe every so often, so they’re getting fresh input. Try building on the creative activity they already like, by introducing a new tool:

-If you have a kid who really likes drawing on their iPad offer them traditional art supplies and vice versa.

-If you have a kid who loves to code games, invite them to experiment with robotics.

-If you have a kid who loves stories, introduce them to an app like Scratch that teaches coding through storytelling and animation.

-If you have a kid who loves music, let them record their own compositions using tools like Garage Band.

Balancing newness and familiarity can often be the recipe that allows kids to venture out of their comfort zone willingly.

4. Give freedom within structure

Creative thinking may happen when you’re lying in a field, staring at the clouds passing by — but most creative people also require structure to do their best work (a belief shared by the Montessori approach).

At Prisma we balance those twin needs in the open-ended, creative projects that are the focus of each academic cycle. This project-based approach, in which kids choose from a series of broad project prompts, allows them to hone problem-solving skills in real-world contexts, ensuring they develop core competencies without making them follow step-by-step instructions.

At the same time, sometimes kids truly need to be off the clock. (Cloud-gazing encouraged!) Give kids unstructured free time and unstructured explorations, whether it’s for free play or a self-directed research project, as many of our learners choose to try.

Whatever the outcome, they’ll be adding to the well of knowledge from which they’ll be able to draw at any time.

5. Provide feedback (but go easy on the criticism)

A misplaced word of criticism, however well-meant, can stifle children’s creativity — especially in the early stages of a project. So make sure to give kids ample space to explore and to decide for themselves if they’re on the path that feels right to them.

When they come to you in search of approval, take the opportunity to ask them open-ended questions about their process, which helps them learn the skill of meta-cognition (thinking about thinking).

On the flip side, part of healthy child development involves learning to take feedback; it’s part of the growth mindset. Any good creative needs to have an audience in mind and to be able to iterate on their ideas.

As kids work through a creative idea, it helps for them to get feedback from multiple perspectives, whether parents, peers or teachers. When our Prisma learners gather feedback on their projects midway through a cycle, part of their task is to weigh the various options and perspectives before deciding which to incorporate and which to let go.

When you internalize the fact that there are infinite ways to approach an idea, you become more tolerant of different perspectives. Even something as apparently as straightforward as a math problem can be an opportunity to reinforce creative development: If you teach them there is more than one way to get to an answer — but all are equally valid — you go a long way in fostering creativity.

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