helping children develop creative thinking

Nurturing Young Children's Creative Thinking Skills


Nurturing Young Children’s Creative Thinking Skills

 Abby Connors

I’ll be sharing a lot of information on the importance of teaching creative thinking, and ways we can support our students’ creativity with our verbal and nonverbal behaviors. I’ll also be sharing a lot of easy and fun activities to inspire children’s creative thinking.


Movement Activity – Jump for Joy. (tune: “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d a Baked a Cake”)

                   I’m so happy to see you I could jump for joy,

                   Jump for joy, jump for joy,

                   I’m so happy to see you I could jump for joy,

                   How’d ya do, how’d ya do, how’d ya do!

                   (Jump on the word “jump,” wave on last line)

Now, I would teach it just like that a couple of times, and then I’d change it up – I might say, instead of jumping, let’s swim for joy. Then I might say, let’s kick for joy. Then, Can you think of anything else we could do for joy?

I demonstrate a few ideas before I ask children to contribute. If I do just one idea, it’s more likely they’ll just copy me, or do something very similar. If I do a few varied ideas, it communicates that there’s no one type of “right” way to do it – it frees them to try all kinds of movements.

I also do a “Follow the Leader” activity – I use the song “Following the Leader” from “Peter Pan” – it’s on the CD “Three Silly Little Kittens” from Kimbo. (But you can use any music.) First I’ll be the leader, and they copy my motions – by the way I do this in a circle, not marching around, so they can see the leader – and I try to do a variety of different types of motions. Then I let children take turns being the leader and thinking up movements.

The great thing about nonverbal movement activities like that one is that you and the children aren’t limited to movements you can name, so it gives you more possibilities for creative movement.

And they get that wonderful feedback when the whole class tries out their ideas. That gives them the confidence to keep sharing their ideas.


On Top of Spaghetti

                   On top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese,

                   I lost my poor meatball, when somebody sneezed – At-CHOO!

Then, instead of “spaghetti” and “meatballs,” sing about two other foods. (We have to keep the cheese, because it rhymes with “sneeze.”) Ask, Can anyone think of another kind of food? And one more? 

This activity illustrates an important thing to remember about encouraging creativity – think small. We tend to think of creativity as this big artistic geniusy thing, but in this song we’re asking children to come with a one-word idea – just one word. That’s very easy, but it’s also a creative activity.  Songs and games like this get children in the habit of thinking creatively, and also help them think of themselves as creative people – as people who have lots of ideas and are comfortable sharing those ideas with the group.

Now, sometimes children will raise their hand excitedly, and then when you call on them, they haven’t thought of anything. I just wait a moment and say, “Would you like to think for a while more?” and move on. Or they might repeat someone else’s idea. I’ll say, “Well, we already said hot dog, can you think of another kind of food?” The point is to give them lots of chances to contribute.


The importance of nurturing young children’s creative thinking skills


Research shows that creative thinking decreases as we get older – and not a little, but a lot. A landmark study from 1993 found that divergent thinking, or the ability to come up with multiple responses, decreases dramatically from childhood to adulthood. In fact, it indicated that most humans reach their peak of creative thinking at age five. Since then several other studies have confirmed this finding.


A fascinating article on this subject, called “The Creativity Crisis” appeared in Newsweek in July 2010 – I highly recommend it: http://www.newsweek.com/2010/07/10/the-creativity-crisis.html


And a study in May of this year indicated that since 1990, the creativity of Americans in particular has been steadily declining. Now, why is that?  It could be related to the time children spend watching TV and video game screens, or the American emphasis on standards and testing, no one knows for sure. Personally, I think standards are a good thing – I don’t think standards are the enemy. Children need to learn basic skills. It’s just that they also need creative thinking skills.


Creative thinking is essential to succeed in the current global economy (Florida 2004). In a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs, they identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future.


President Obama has called on educators to teach “21st century skills like problem-solving… and creativity." (Speech 3/09/09) And at the other end of the political spectrum, former Governor Mike Huckabee has said “ We've got to start helping people to understand that there is a direct correlation between the power of our own economy -- the power of our own future survival -- and the power of stimulating creativity.” So this is really an important issue that transcends politics.


The good news is that these skills can be encouraged and taught (Robinson 2006).


NAEYC’s guidelines for DAP recognize the importance of nurturing children’s creativity, urging teachers to arrange

“firsthand, meaningful experiences that are intellectually and creatively stimulating” (2. E. 1) and to


“extend the range of children’s interests and the scope of their thought by presenting novel experiences and introducing stimulating ideas” (2. F.3)


So we want to stimulate creative thinking with novel and meaningful experiences. But by itself, this isn’t enough. We need to make sure our classrooms are places where children’s ideas are accepted and respected, where they have time to think creatively, where they feel comfortable sharing their ideas with the group.


Shakers – Improvise to “Mardi Gras Mambo” (by the Meters, available on iTunes) I show children a few movements they can try, and then I ask them to raise their hands if they have an idea for another movement for the group to try out. Like the “On Top of Spaghetti” activity, each idea is small – one type of repetitive movement – and provides immediate positive feedback for contributing, when the whole group tries out their idea.


It’s also great to bring in just one instrument, like a xylophone, show the class a few ways to play it, and then pass it around the circle. Each child is free to use techniques they’ve already seen or try something completely different. I’ll show them how they can play up the scale, down the scale, loud, soft, or make what I call the “magic” sound, like a glissando. I’ve also seen children play with the other end of the mallet, sing or say letters while they play, play the underside of the bars, tap the sides or the ends, sing a song while they play, play the mallet sideways see-saw style, and lots more.


Supporting creative thinking


First of all, and this is something we’re all doing all the time, is to establish a climate of respect. Of course, this is an ongoing process with young children, but we always need to be reinforcing the ideas of listening to the person who is speaking, not interrupting, and waiting for our turn to speak or perform. It can help to have a puppet to “learn the rules,” and sometimes forget the rules, so the children can remind him or her.


Also, to support children’s ideas, we need to really listen to their ideas. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Young children can be hard to understand – they don’t have a lot of vocabulary, they can be kind of incoherent and say things out of order, they may be non-native speakers, they may be shy and speak very softly -  but it’s important for them to know that we’re really listening and trying to understand.


Of course, there isn’t always time to listen. There’s a lot going on at any given moment, and we can’t just drop everything we’re doing to hear about someone’s pretend dinosaur, or listen to a song someone made up. So another part of this is that we need to have set-aside, special times every day for creative activities when we can give our full attention to children’s creative ideas.


Also, children need to have their ideas accepted, even if those ideas seem odd or “not right” to us.


In addition to accepting creativity, we need to be expecting creativity. All kinds of studies show that teachers, like everyone, tend to “see” the results they expect. There’s a great story and video (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html) in which a world-class violinist named Joshua Bell played a Stradivarius violin worth millions, in a subway station, like a street musician. He played Bach and all kinds of beautiful classical music, and hundreds of people passed by without looking or listening. They didn’t expect to hear beautiful music in that context. (Oddly enough, most of the very few who stopped to listen were young children, before their parents yanked them away.) I start every day expecting to see incredible creative ideas from my students, and I’m never disappointed.


Lastly, we need to make fun and play priorities in our classrooms. Creative thinking happens when we’re relaxed and thinking playfully – it’s the same for children.


Paper Plate Dancing – use two paper plates (hold one in each hand) and dance to rhythmic music. Use plates just to dance with, or to make sound by clapping together, or tapping on sides, legs, heads, etc. Ask children to think of different ways to dance and make music with the paper plates.


Interviewing Puppets

After reading a story, have a puppet representing an animal from the story (such as a hen for “Henny Penny”) come out and talk to the children and answer their questions about the story. This activity helps children to explore the characters and plots of read-aloud stories in imaginative ways. It also helps you to know what’s really going on those little minds. They may be very interested in certain kinds of animals, or foods, they may have fears, or family or social issues, that you’d never know about otherwise. Puppets are just amazing tools for teachers of young children.


By the way, after the interview, my puppet is usually hungry. So I’ll ask it what it would like to eat. It might be something realistic, like a frog might like to eat flies, or it might be something silly, like pancakes. I’ll pretend to feed it and then take it around the circle for the children to feed. At first I did this just to have more one-on-one time with each child, but it’s turned out to be a very creative activity. Most children want to give the puppet something special. Like with the frog – they give him fly juice, fly cake, all the flies in the world, and so on. Try it, you’ll be amazed at your puppet’s varied diet.


Naming puppets - One group I had last year, a couple of girls would always ask what the puppet’s name was. At first I just made up a name, but then I started asking them what they thought would be a good name for the puppet. Now it’s a regular routine in that class, everybody wants to think of a name for the puppet.

Once I had a porcupine, and among the names they gave it were Porky, Princess Flip-Flop Porcupine, and Shark!


Singing with and to puppets – Again, I got these ideas from my very creative students. One kindergarten class started the tradition of each music session ending in one child taking the puppet and singing a song. Of course, the child got to choose which song they wanted to sing. Sometimes weeks go by where everyone sings the ABC song, but sometimes they sing all kinds of songs, from TV shows, or pop songs, or even made-up songs. My favorite was a little boy who was very shy, and the week that it was his turn, the puppet was the butterfly. He sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”!


And some kids like to sing songs to the puppet. This started with a girl who said, “Ooh, ooh, can I sing a song to the cat?” and she sang to the cat puppet, something like “Oh, you’re so pretty and soft. And I love you. And you are very nice. And you’re my favorite!”



Showing appreciation for creative thinking


How can we show appreciation for our students’ creative thinking?


First of all, it’s been well documented that being evaluated, and even the expectation or fear of being evaluated, decreases creative thinking. Think of what the feeling of being evaluated might do to the creative expressiveness of a young child.


Even positive evaluation – praise – has this effect. The writer Alfie Kohn has written a lot on this subject. Some praise is appropriate, but when we’re always saying “Good job!” or whatever, we’re making it all about gaining our approval instead of their own internal motivation to think creatively and express their ideas.  The more we give verbal rewards, the more children tend to lose interest in whatever they did to get the reward.


So what are some effective ways to show children how much we value their creative thinking?  Well, we can express interest and attention. When a child takes a turn playing an instrument, for example, I might say, “Ooh, that was a very soft sound,” or “I see Elijah is playing it upside down.”  It’s a huge motivator for children to feel that adults are really interested in their ideas.


Second, we can incorporate students’ ideas into our classroom routines and practices. For instance, when we were putting away the sand blocks one day, and they were placing the blocks into my bag as I held it out around the circle, a girl held them together and said, “Look, Miss Abby, it’s a sand block sandwich!” Well, I realized this is a very efficient, as well as fun, way to get the children to put away the sand blocks with a minimum of fuss. So now when we finish playing, I always say, “Okay, everybody make a sand block sandwich to put into the bag!” Using children’s ideas in the classroom makes them feel, correctly, that their ideas are valuable and helpful.

Third, we need to remember that our main goal is to celebrate the creative process, not the products. So I’m constantly saying things like:

                   You all have such great imaginations!

                   Wow, we thought of so many ways to play the ukulele!

                   Thank you for sharing all those ideas!

                   Isn’t it fun to make up new songs? (or stories, or whatever)


Fourth, and maybe most important, is to use nonverbal communication to show our appreciation. Our facial expression is our most important of all the ways we communicate with children, so when you’re responding to a child’s idea, be sure to look at them, smile, maybe raise your eyebrows at a funny or surprising idea, or do what I call the Oprah face, with open mouth and wide eyes. And adjust your tone of voice to the temperament of the child you’re speaking to – some children love a big “WOW!” or a high-five, others respond better to a smile and a soft “Thank you!”


A few more activities to inspire creative thinking


Hand dancing  - A very fun activity is to dance using only your hands. A fun song to use for this is “Cumbamba”  by Jose Conde, from the CD “Jazz Playground” by Putumayo.  Jose Conde also has a band called “Baby Loves Salsa” that has a wonderful CD called “Salsa for Kittens and Puppies.” It’s amazing.


Use stories to ask “what if?” or other imaginative questions. For example, in “Baby Bear’s Big Dreams” by Jane Yolen, the little bear imagines what he’ll do when he gets bigger. You can ask children what they would like to do when they’re bigger. And again, this is just for fun. If a child says, “I’d like to fly an airplane to the moon,” we don’t need to point out the problems with this plan – we can just say, “That sounds like fun!”


In the song “On Top of Spaghetti”  we let children fill in the blanks with their own ideas. I use several fill-in-the-blank songs. There’s “Everybody Knows I Love My Toes” by Peter and Ellen Allard, and “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea” – after I teach the song, I let them put whatever they want into the hole. A shark, a whale, a pizza, whatever.


We improvised with rhythm instruments. It’s also great to improvise with nontraditional sound sources like coffee cans, oatmeal boxes and egg cartons, or putting different things in shakers, like cereal, seashells, rice, pebbles, and acorns.


There are dozens more activities to nurture young children’s creative thinking with music, art, movement, stories, and games in my new book “Teaching Creativity: Supporting, Valuing, and Inspiring Young Children’s Creative Thinking” (Whitmore, 2010).




Explore and value your own creativity


Remember how important it is to share your own creative gifts and the joy you have in using your imagination. You put a lot of creativity into teaching and into making your classroom environment beautiful and interesting. Children love to hear about how you make things and how you get your ideas. And they want to be like you, so it’s a big motivator when they see that you love to use your imagination and create wonderful things.


Also, it’s great to bring in creative projects, crafts, or art or music, that you love.  When you share art, stories, music that have meaning to you, that are a part of your life, children feel that and they’re more engaged. No one is creative in a vacuum – we all get ideas from each other.


Make creativity a priority every day and your students will be engaged, expressive, and eager to learn.


(See “Creativity Cheat Sheet” on next page)





Creativity Cheat Sheet


There’s nothing mysterious about coming up with new ideas. As a matter of fact, there are no new ideas, only new combinations of existing ideas.

Being creative is all about changing around different variables in different ways. Here are some examples. (These ideas can be used in music, dance, movement, poetry, songs, and dramatic play.)


  1. Tempo –fast or slow.
  2. Dynamics –loud or soft.
  3. Area –a large or a small motion.
  4. Height –high (above head), low or

              anywhere in between.

  1. Directionality – move up, down, side to side, in a circle, diagonally, and so on.   
  2. Space – high or low, in front or in back
  3. Position - rightside up, upside down, sideways, etc.
  4. Use different parts of the body – knee, shoulder, tummy, toes, etc.
  5. Type of movement –walk, slide, wiggle, jump, etc.
  6. (Music instruments) Hit or scrape different parts of the instrument against other parts (for two-piece instruments)
  7. (Music instruments) Different hand movements on instruments – tap with finger, pat with whole hand, scratch, knock with knuckles, brush with fingertips, rub with palm, flick with thumb and third finger, etc.
  8. Animals – How would different animals (mice, elephants, kangaroos, etc.) do this?
  9. Characters – How would a (pirate, ballerina, baby, princess, robot, etc.) do this?
  10. Nature –portray rain, thunder, falling leaves, sunshine, stars, ocean waves, etc.
  11. (Music instruments)Timbre (sound quality) – play instrument with or on different materials (cardboard, wood, blanket, etc.) or fill homemade shakers with different materials (rice, building bricks, paper clips, etc.) to change sound
  12. Staccato/Legato – Perform the same movement in a sharp, choppy (staccato) way or a smooth, flowing way (legato)
  13. (Music instruments)Rhythm – play in a regular rhythm (steady beats), a skipping or galloping rhythm, or an irregular rhythm
  14. Acceleration/deceleration –faster or slower
  15. Crescendo/decrescendo – get gradually louder or softer
  16. Position of body –standing, sitting, squatting, lying down, or while marching or dancing