My son made an astounding comment the other day that most parents would delight to hear. We had just finished building a “fortress” out of a couple cardboard boxes and a Styrofoam cup. Pleased with his new toy, my son exclaimed, “Mommy, daddy, we never have to buy any new toys; anytime we want something we can just make it.” I’m not sure how long we can get that sentiment to last, but surely we can save some money on it! Indeed we have found that our children’s favorite toys are the ones they make, particularly the toy figures shown above made of toilet-paper rolls. This phenomenon began in our home last Christmas when my wife made drew the main characters from The Nutcracker (the toy soldiers, mouse king, etc) on about a dozen paper rolls and helped my son reenact the story with them. Since then his collection is approaching about a hundred figures and has diversified to include aliens, pirates, superheroes, robots, indians…Whenever he gets interested in some new kind of character he wants to make paper roll figures of them. He sets up elaborate battles with them in his room and when given a choice to take toys on a trip to his grandparents, the paper roll figures always top the list. Even little sister has caught the creative spirit and has made her own set of fairies and princesses. Used toilet-paper rolls have become such precious commodities in our home that we can use them as rewards and have to moderate disputes over them (our daughter once put almost a whole roll of toilet paper in the toilet so she could get the roll underneath!).
Our children are at an age (3 and 5) where they seem to be just bursting with creative energy, which is a joy to watch. Just the other day while driving, my son was using my daughter’s toy cell phone (just plastic, no electronics in it) as a pretend video game system, supplying all the background music and sound effects himself as he imagined a real Nintendo DS in his hand. He invented a set of pretend video games for my daughter, like “Princess Pony Ride,” and then gave her a turn on the device. Occasionally we will find them immersed in these games while lounging in their rooms and exclaiming, “I won, Mama, I won!”
As a parent and professional teacher, I am fascinated by the development of creativity in children and wonder how to help my children and students become more creative. At the same time, I bemoan my own lack of creativity and am troubled by the lackluster spirit of creativity and innovation in so many young people today. Much is at stake in the creative development of our children since the prosperity of an economy is dependent strongly on the innovative capacity of its workforce. Yet the process by which creativity is developed in children is dimly understood. Without presuming that my work with my own children is somehow exemplary, I would like to offer some ideas on fostering creativity from my experience with my own children and from my philosophy of education.
My starting premise is that creativity is an intrinsic characteristic of human nature. According to the biblical account of man’s origins, humans are made in the image of God. One of the divine characteristics we “image” is creativity. God is the ultimate Creator: his creative genius is displayed throughout the universe. Our propensity to create, and our delight in doing so, is innate to our nature as divine image-bearers. Thus, we are born with the “seeds” of creativity in our very souls. One implication of this trait is that creativity will develop naturally: it is not an artificial characteristic that must be ingrained in us by society. If we should expect creativity to develop naturally, then why aren’t all of our children becoming wondrously creative?
Like all natural processes, the growth of creativity in children can be disrupted by social or environmental factors. Fruits, flowers, and vegetables will grow naturally in my garden, but I can stifle or even stop their growth by adding herbicides or pesticides haphazardly, allowing weeds to choke them out, depleting the soil of nutrients, etc. Similarly we can stifle children’s creativity by our passive neglect or active discouragement. I believe we discourage our children’s creative growth when we create play and entertainment environments that leave nothing to their imagination. Saturating our children’s rooms with all the latest toys and filling their hours with electronic visual stimuli (TV, video games, etc) supplies to their minds such a steady stream of images that they never have to supply their own. The imagination will not grow if it is not being used. We can also neglect our children’s growth by withholding opportunities for them to exercise creativity. By not reading to our children or supplying them with creative tools (as simple as paper and crayons) we also stifle their growth.
The other side of gardening is the actions we perform that assist the processes of nature, making them more productive and abundant. This year in my garden we had watermelon vines sprout from the ground spontaneously from seeds left in the garden from the previous year. I decided to allow some of these plant to grow along with the ones I planted but did not tend to them like the others. Of course they grew but without my care and attention, the watermelons they produced were not only smaller but more susceptible to decay than the ones we planted and tended to. In this way, teaching children is similar to gardening or farming. Philosopher Mortimer Adler classifies both endeavors, along with practicing medicine, as “cooperative activities,” and contrasts them with other human activities:
“In arts such as shoemaking and shipbuilding, painting and sculpture (arts which I call “operative” to distinguish them from the three cooperative arts), the artist is the principal cause of the product produced. Nature may supply the materials to be fashioned or transformed, and may even supply models to imitate, but without the intervention of the artist’s skill and causal efficacy, nature would not produce shoes, ships, paintings or statues.
Unlike the operative artist, who aims either at beauty or utility, the cooperative artist merely helps nature to produce results that it is able to produce by its own powers, without the assistance of the artist — without the intervention of the artist’s accessory causality. Fruits and grains grow naturally; the farmer intervenes merely to assure that these natural products grow with regularity and, perhaps, to increase their quantity. The body has the power to heal itself — to maintain health and regain health; the physician who adopts the Hippocratic conception of the healing art attempts to support and reinforce the natural processes of the body. The mind, like the body, has the power to achieve what is good for itself — knowledge and understanding [and creativity]. Learning would go on if there were no teachers, just as healing and growing would go on if there were no physicians and farmers.
Like the farmer and the physician, the teacher must be sensitive to the natural process that his art should help bring to its fullest fruition — the natural process of learning (from “Teaching and Learning”).”
If we want our children to become more creative, parents and teachers need to recognize that creativity grows naturally and understand, through experience and dialogue with others, something about how the process occurs. Then, like skillful gardeners, we can work with nature, which does the most difficult part, to help our children reflect more fully the image of God in their creativity.