Texas A&M: Children Who Think Creatively Benefit Throughout Life

Is creativity something we are born with, or a skill we develop? Joyce Juntune, a creativity expert at Texas A&M University, believes it’s a little of both, and that children who are encouraged to be creative are happier and more productive at all stages of life.

“Creativity makes you a better person and can make the world a better place,” said Juntune, an instructional professor who oversees academic programs in creativity in the Department of Educational Psychology. Juntune has trained thousands of teachers in more than 500 school districts in creative thinking as one of the developers and a former director of Project REACH.

“Developing creativity brings positive energy to one’s life at any age,” she said. “People who use their creative ability regularly do not burn out or become discouraged, because they are able to generate new and useful ideas for just about any situation.”

Some children are extraordinarily creative, with vivid imaginations and the ability to make connections between things that are not normally connected, Juntune said.

“These children have a playful attitude about life and a sense of humor,” she said. “They are problem solvers as well as day dreamers — the kind who get involved in a project and lose track of time.”

All children can learn how to enhance their natural creativity, Juntune said, and this process starts at home.

“Parents can encourage creativity even with very young children by reading to them and engaging them in simple play like peekaboo games,” she said. “Later, parents can ask ‘what if’ and ‘I wonder’ questions, like ‘I wonder why the cracks in the sidewalk are different sizes’?”

Juntune said the goal is not to get a correct answer, but to stimulate thinking about different possibilities. Encouraging children to ask questions is likewise beneficial.

“Let them ask why the sky is blue, for example, then find the answers together,” she said. “And keep in mind that while answering one question after another might be frustrating for parents, it’s a gift that helps children learn about the world and themselves.”

Engaging children in activities such as writing stories, painting, puppet shows and building with Lego bricks and other structures also helps cultivate creativity, Juntune said.

“Allow children to pursue their interests, even if it messes up your plans and your house,” she said. “Children need unstructured time, and they benefit more if you’re there to interact with them even while you’re doing other tasks. It’s also a good idea to designate specific spaces for the messier activities, such as painting in the garage or on the patio, and keeping toys and blocks in the living room.”

Teachers also can nurture creativity in the structure of the classroom, Juntune said.

“They can ask for more than one kind of answer to a question, for example,” she said. “When a student answers a question, do all of the hands go down, or just the hand of the student who answered? In a classroom that encourages creative thinking, several other students will also have another way to say the answer.”

Other teacher tactics are to ask open-ended questions, allow for various ways to complete assignments, give students choices for assignments and projects, and allow students to help solve problems that arise during class.

“Above all, parents and teachers should celebrate creativity and be mindful of the barriers that inhibit it,” Juntune said.

That means providing an environment where children can explore new ideas without fear of judgment.

“Fear of making a mistake or failing at something makes us far less creative,” she said. “And in fact, we can learn a great deal from our mistakes that will help us later on. Children should learn that failure is part of life — and even something we can laugh about as we switch directions to something more likely to succeed.”

Similarly, Juntune said that the creative process is more complete when it comes with no strings attached.

“External judgments such as grades, or incentives such as rewards, will actually inhibit creativity by adding pressure that makes the process less enjoyable and thus less productive,” she said. “Acknowledgement after the fact is fine, but putting constraints on the process beforehand is not a good idea.”

Juntune said that while it’s never too late to become more creative, children who acquire these skills along with school, sports and other activities will be better off.

“Creativity is the human birthright of every individual,” she said. “Some choose to develop it while others leave it dormant, but there are ways that people who choose to develop it can develop it.”

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