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Creative Children

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creative children

In the mid to late 1970s, no one except serious hobbyists knew how to actually use “personal computers.” Most businesses didn’t own a PC, and commercial software hardly existed. Programs that were available were mainly for scientific applications or games.

Yet a handful of teenagers who owned or built PCs spent long hours learning how to program them. They read computer magazines, and developed friendships with each other to exchange information and ideas. These kids were passionate about this new hobby, some unable to break away from their terminals to go to school, social activities, or any event that didn’t revolve around this new gadget.

No one was giving them a grade for their activities, or praising them with special awards, or recognition. Many parents and teachers were concerned at the amount of time these teenagers spent with these new toys, unable to see any benefits in spending so many hours with something that seemed arcane and narrowly focused.

By the early 1980s, some concerns became well founded as reports began to surface about some especially creative teens using their PCs and modems to hack into their school’s computer systems to change their grades – or others’ grades.

After a few decades of unparalleled advancements in technology, and many destructive examples of hacking, these stories of early PC exploration and addiction seem minor and even quaint. Except, of course, to those who study the psychology of creativity.

This example of teens enthralled about something that only in hindsight is highly relevant in today’s world is a perfect example of promising creativity. It’s an example of individuals who are intrinsically motivated by an inner passion, something that fuels their desire to learn and create that all other school subjects, activities, and minor interests pale in comparison.

Many of these early hobbyists became the engineers and software programmers that went to work for companies like IBM, Apple, and Microsoft. Their early passions took them into careers where they made significant contributions, contributions that continue to affect the world. The number of jobs, scientific breakthroughs, and changes in daily life attributed to technology are too many to list. To summarize, the world has undergone a complete revolution, a seismic shift in how it operates thanks to the fervor and zealousness of many of these early technology adopters.

Why Study Childhood Creativity?

Creativity researchers attempt to describe and explain what factors prepare children to become adult contributors of novel products, ideas, and inventions, as well as expert problem solvers. For more information see childhood developmental psychology.

For example, research conducted in 1969 by psychologists Michael A. Wallach and C. W. Wing found that divergent thinking tests were more predictive of students’ extracurricular activities and achievements than more traditional intelligence tests. Since that study, other creativity researchers have replicated these results, including creativity researcher Mark A. Runco, PhD, and professor at the University of Georgia College of Education.

In his book “Creativity, Theories and Themes: Research, Development, and Practice,” Runco states that the predictive validity of divergent thinking tests over IQ tests has major implications for children’s future success. This predictability implies that creative thinking is more important in the natural world (the real world, or workplace) than IQ or academic achievement.

Clearly, teaching students creativity skills, and instilling in them the motivation to create has positive consequences for both students and the world. Students find passionate interests, and enter careers where their jobs don’t really feel like “work.” And the world gains individuals with the ability to solve its toughest economic, political, and scientific problems.

Novelty and Appropriateness

Teresa M. Amabile, a creativity researcher at Harvard Business School, and author of “Growing Up Creative,” states that self-absorbing behaviors that result in original products exemplify creativity. Creativity describes behaviors, ideas, and products, and it’s available to all individuals. Amabile defines it in childhood as involving two elements: novelty and appropriateness.

If a child comes up with something completely different from anything she or he or anyone else has done or seen, then the outcome is novel. The second component, appropriateness, means achieving a specific goal, or solving a specific problem; it also means communicating something meaningful and purposeful, even if it’s only meaningful to the child.

Appropriateness is the hardest part of the definition to explain or justify, according to Amabile. Defining what’s “meaningful” can be particularly subjective.

A child’s picture, for example, that’s not merely a realistic copy of something that the child has seen or drawn before, might have a particular “meaning” to the child. In Amabile’s book, she gives an example of a girl in kindergarten who drew a brontosaurus with a striped, multicolored body. When asked about the stripes, the girl replied that the teacher said to color the dinosaur any way she wanted. Amabile said that’s an example of creativity.

Yet, whether talking about child or adult creativity, all creativity researchers note the difficulty in defining “true creativity.” That’s why the research on this topic contains so many definitions and descriptions. However, most definitions contain some elements of both novelty and appropriateness. For example, the following is another widely accepted definition for all age groups:

What Creativity Isn’t...

For many years individuals believed in the myth that creativity is a magical, mysterious gift bestowed on special individuals. Scientists had already debunked other myths surrounding the brain - such as its size determining intelligence - as of the middle of the last century. Yet, creativity remained relatively unexplored.

In 1950, psychologist J.P. Guilford, during his presidential address to the American Psychological Association, called for an end to the scarcity of research on creativity. During his address, he noted that in the preceding 23 years, only 186 of 121,000 journal articles focused on creativity. At this point in time, researchers hardly uttered the word creativity, and it wasn’t widely used in the general population.

Through years of conducting his own research, Guilford noted that creativity levels were not synonymous with IQ scores as most believed. In fact, according to the book “Creativity, Theories and Themes: Research, Development, and Practice,” the relationship between intelligence and creativity “was the key debate when the study of creativity was establishing itself.”

In the book, author Mark A. Runco, a creativity researcher and author of numerous books and papers on creativity, states that if creativity and intelligence were strongly related, researchers wouldn’t need to study creativity. Parents and the educational community would only need to support and nurture intelligence, and creativity would increase along with intelligence.

However, since Guilford’s groundbreaking research into intelligence and creativity, scientists have confirmed his hypothesis through psychometric tests that IQ and creativity show no direct correlation. Some highly intelligent children as measured by IQ tests are highly creative, but others do not show any higher levels of creativity than less intelligent children, or those with average IQs.

Confusion over the link between IQ and creativity continues today, leading to problems in education. For example, many schools group “gifted and talented” students with those considered “highly creative.” The reasons for this grouping revolve around the fact that these children share many of the same personality traits.

For instance, both creative and gifted students have trouble learning in traditional learning environments, and both types of students are considered unconventional, and nonconformists.

Yet gifted children who have high IQs or unusual talents in one area might or might not be highly creative. For instance, a child who has an unusual ability with mathematical concepts and numbers, such as the ability to rattle off two-digit multiplication problems at alarming speed, isn’t necessarily creative. He or she is undoubtedly highly intelligent, but not necessarily highly creative. Even children who have mastered an instrument at a particularly young age, or the ability to draw exact reproductions aren’t necessarily highly creative. But they are talented.

Research Areas of Childhood Creativity

Many researchers focus on the connection between cognition and creativity, such as variables involving:

  • Divergent thinking
  • Motivation
  • Problem solving
  • Problem finding

Other researchers focus on the personality variables identified in childhood creativity such as:

  • Self-confidence
  • Risk-taking
  • Openness to experience
  • Unconventionality

Still other researchers focus on environment and family systems that contribute to childhood creativity, such as:

  • Socioeconomic factors
  • Family structure and birth order
  • Parenting style
  • Trauma in childhood

What is Creativity?

Identifying childhood creativity, or even adulthood creativity, presents a major challenge. Researchers have developed numerous hypotheses and theories on how to explain creativity within a scientific framework. Within each of these frameworks, however, nearly all researchers agree on a few common characteristics of creativity.

Definition of Creativity*

Creativity is defined as the ability to produce work that is novel, of high quality, and useful or appropriate according to the particular task or discipline.

* from “The Creativity Conundrum” by Robert J. Sternberg, James C. Kaufman, and Jean E. Pretz.

Divergent thinking.

One of the most pervasive characteristics of creative children is their ability to think divergently. First identified by researcher J.P. Guilford, divergent thinking differs significantly from convergent thinking – the type of thinking measured on IQ tests where only one right answer exists for a given problem. Convergent questions take the form: “How many nickels in a dollar?” and “At what temperature does water boil?”

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, involves coming up with multiple answers for open-ended problems. These questions might take the form of describing as many uses for a comb as a child can think of, or listing as many square things as possible.

Creativity tests that measure divergence score kids on the number of answers they come up with for each question, and also the creativity of the answers. So in answering the “square” question, a highly creative answer would take the form of “my grandparents’ music.” They also measure the statistical rarity of the responses, and amount of detail a child goes into to answer the questions.

Motivation - the Key for Developing One's Creativity

Another key characteristic in creativity focuses on motivation. Without motivation, even the most highly creative child will not develop his or her abilities. Harvard’s Amabile is one of today’s leading researchers on creativity and motivation. In defining motivation, Amabile differentiates between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation describes children or individuals working for rewards that come from the outside rather than within. These rewards take the form of awards or stickers, winning competitions or a prize, getting positive recognition, meeting a deadline, or earning money.

Amabile argues that extrinsic rewards actually deter individuals from developing the most creative outcomes. She states that when extrinsic rewards are promised, the child becomes more focused on the reward rather than on generating the most creative outcomes.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation describes an inner drive or passion for a subject, idea, or field of study that gives an individual such satisfaction to learn that rewards aren’t necessary. Individuals are inspired to such an extent that they must pursue this passion.

The example of the group of teenagers in the 1970s so intrigued with PCs that they wanted to spend all their time learning about them, is an example of intrinsic motivation. And this type of intrinsic motivation cuts across all disciplines, according to creativity researchers. Researchers demonstrate the importance of creative thinking for solving issues like global warming, political unrest, finding cures for diseases, and starting new businesses. It’s not – another creativity myth – only a skill found among the arts.

Amabile makes the point that there isn’t one subject that is intrinsically motivating in and of itself. In other words, every child will have his or her own intrinsic interests.

Nurturing intrinsic motivation in a child depends to a large extent on the social environment of the child, according to Amabile. This means that parents and teachers will directly impact a child by understanding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and encouraging intrinsic motivation. There are a number of ways for parents and teachers to encourage intrinsic motivation in children, including the following:

How to Encourage Creativity and Intrinsic Motivation
  • Provide opportunities for self-expression based on a child’s interest. Let the child decide what he or she likes or wants to explore.
  • Provide a rich mix of materials for specific creative interests: drawing with a range of materials and papers, using chalk to draw on sidewalks, painting, a variety of musical instruments, clay, different software programs for writing and creating.
  • Provide positive conditions in the classroom and home where kids are able to safely explore and create. Stay out of the child’s way, letting the child emotionally follow his or her own ideas.
  • Provide lots of unstructured time for children to play. Encourage and support fantasy play, and don’t become concerned with imaginary friends or imaginary worlds created by the child.
  • Provide areas of the classroom or house where children can display completed artworks, inventions, and experiments.
  • Provide a variety of art and cultural experiences. These might include attending a Native American powwow, a trip to various museums, hikes, musical concerts, and science fairs.
  • Provide a model of creativity for children, whether it’s yourself or interaction with other creative family members or friends. For teachers, inviting artists, scientists, engineers, musicians, and entrepreneurs to speak to the class and explain how they use creativity in their jobs also provides important models of creativity.
  • Provide information to children about creativity, explaining that it’s usually a mix of hard work and discipline rather than strictly talent that produces outstanding products and ideas.
  • Provide children with an environment that encourages ways of being “different” or “not following what everyone else does.”
  • Provide an environment that includes humor and lots of laughter.
  • Provide intrinsic rewards for children to create and innovate, such as remarking how fun it is to simply explore and find new ways of doing things.

If you are interested in the psychology of creativity, you should consider a bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD in psychology. Creativity is studied in many fields of psychology, including cognitive psychology, social psychology, media psychology, and educational psychology. For more information, contact schools offering degrees in these fields.

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