Raising creative children: It’s easier than you think

Amy Webb, PhD
April 25, 2019

Relay with creative cutout leaves and flowers

There’s a famous study in which kids are asked to come up with how many uses they can think of for a paper clip. How many uses can you think of for a simple paper clip?

Some kids say things like “fishing hook” or “back scratcher.”

Thousands of kids were involved in this study and based on how many ideas they could devise, they were ranked on how well they exemplified divergent thinking. That is, how well could they look at a problem with novel, creative solutions. Divergent thinking means the ability to find multiple solutions to a problem.

What percentage of  typical 5-year-olds score in “genius” level for divergent thinking?

The answer: 98%!

By the time they reach high school, only 12% were ranked as “genius” level on divergent thinking.

This study begs the question: what happens between kindergarten and high school that explains this dramatic decline in this type of creativity called divergent thinking? The children in this study, of course, experience many things in the intervening years. The authors point out, however, that the primary experience they all have is that they are taught over and over that there is just one right answer to every problem. In school, at home and most everywhere else, children are formed to believe there is one right answer, one right solution to a problem.

Of course, there is a need for this type of formation in life. We wouldn’t get very far with formal education of our children if we taught them that all answers were right. We know that children have to understand that in some situations (e.g., math, writing, etc.) that there is just one right answer.

But what about creativity and this ability to think divergently about solutions to problems? Should we care about this?

In the big picture of the world that our kids will inherit, I think clearly the answer is “yes.” Creative thinking is what solves big problems. Thinking outside the box, looking at multiple solutions–these are the thinking skills that kids will need to solve the complex problems of the future.

As parents, there are things we can do to help raise creative children, even as they experience formal education.

Foster Unstructured Play

So much of our kids’ days are structured, rule-driven and controlled by adults. While there is a need for structured activities and learning, kids also need plenty of time for unstructured play that is not managed by adults.

This doesn’t mean chaos, it means creativity. Left on their own, kids will often devise their own games, rules and ways to keep the play lively and fun. I have seen this with my own kids numerous times. When we have a group of friends over to play, we just allow space for the kids to run around and see what emerges. Usually they develop some game or play of their own, with their own rules.

Have you ever seen a group of kids playing “groundies” on the playground? This game seems to be a universal one that all kids learn from other kids at a young age. I have no idea where it developed, but most kids just inherently learn it on the playground. The rules are made by kids, but all kids usually know the terms. It’s sort of amazing to watch how kids regulate themselves and their behavior when given the space to do so.

This is the beauty of unstructured play. Research backs up the necessity and usefulness of unstructured play for our children and the development of creativity. Studies have shown that kids who spend more time in unstructured play tend to rank higher on measures of executive function skills. These are the skills like planning, self-control, attention and memory that help kids succeed in all areas of life. While these may sound “uncreative” and boring, these are the foundations of creativity. Without these basic skills, the imaginative, fun, risk-taking and problem-solving of creativity is not possible.

Limit Hovering

The term “helicopter parenting” has made the rounds in the media for the past few years and made parents feel guilty about yet another aspect of parenting. In reality, however, helicopter parenting can be a real deterrent to fostering creative children, if it’s taken too far.

Parents often joke about being a “helicopter parent” when they bring their child’s forgotten lunchbox to school in time for lunch or similar scenarios. Helicopter parenting becomes problematic when it involves rescuing kids from failure or disappointment.

Allowing children to experience (some) failure really is a creative-building experience. Imagine if Thomas Edison had never experienced the hundreds of failures at creating the lightbulb? It may never had been invented, or at least not by him. Failure builds creativity in the most natural way. When one choice or solution doesn’t work, we are forced to think in a new way about another possible solution. Creativity in action!

In our everyday lives, we want to limit hovering or helicopter parenting our children, but many of us have real concerns about their safety and long-term well-being. That’s where Relay is so helpful. With a Relay in hand, we can feel confident allowing our kids more leeway in playing in the neighborhood or meeting up with friends on their own. We can stay in communication with them, without hovering over their every move. The sense of freedom and confidence that kids gain by having control of their decisions and actions only fosters their positive development.

Ultimately, raising creative children has a lot more do with what we don’t do, than what we do as parents. If we cut down on structured activities and allow for unstructured play, our kids’ creativity will bloom. If we allow for a little freedom in decision-making and perhaps even a little failure in our kids, they will gain resilience and confidence. With a little patience and guidance, our kids will develop into healthy, creative adults.


Amy Webb, PHD               

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons.

With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing.

She does not claim to be a parenting guru, but rather a translator of academic research into knowledge that parents can actually use.

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