Creativity at Home in the Time of Pandemic
Newton formulated his theory of gravity and Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined during the plague. But would they have been able to homeschool their children? Like you have to? How can you allow your children to be creative when they are stuck at home?
Daily routines are disrupted and entertainment is disrupted. We are not going to the movies or museums, we are not going to restaurants, afterschool activities are canceled, there are no playdates, library or playground time. Many institutions have made educational resources freely available online; IBM made their design courses free, NASA offers many lessons and activities, and many museums offer virtual tours. Here, I share research-based suggestions for nurturing creativity.
People most readily associate creativity with the arts, but one does not have to be artistic to be creative. When researchers have asked what symbols come to mind for creativity, most common responses are art-related (e.g., paintbrush and colors, musical notes).
Similarly, people talk about their own creativity in terms of artistic experiences and interests. (Chances are you have heard people comment, “Oh, I am not very creative. I don't know how to draw well.”) The arts certainly are creative, but so are the sciences, design, engineering, sports, cooking.
Creativity exists in most domains of work. There are creative scientists and creative engineers (think Nikola Tesla with his many inventions), creative athletes (Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan made basketball, well, magic), creative home cooks, and creative professional chefs (David Chang!). Creativity across all these domains of work has some things in common. The following tips are based on these general attributes of creativity.
1. Start with interests
More than 30 years of research shows that intrinsic motivation fuels creativity. Intrinsic motivation means doing something for its own sake – not because of the grades that can be received or rewards to be obtained but because of the enjoyment of the activity and the challenge of it. Maybe your child is intrinsically motivated to play video games – they think Minecraft is fun and they are figuring out the challenge of staying alive and building a world. Or they are intrinsically motivated to learn about science, make comic books, or tell jokes. Start with these intrinsic interests to build creativity.
Interests can be a starting point in developing expertise; for example, a child who likes comic books working tirelessly to make their own comic books, and steadily becoming better. They may become a comic book artist.
But interests can be a starting point for other learning. A comic book lover can learn to write persuasive essays on why school reading should include comic books and graphic novels. They can learn to structure dramatic narratives through comic books and develop characters in stories through comic books. They could learn how to do research by examining the history of comic books and the emergence of graphic novels. Or they can learn social studies and history lessons by studying the 1950s comic book scare. In each case, a student is learning important curricular content but is able to be creative and learn more deeply because of the personally meaningful content.
2. Be open-ended
Creativity arises from ill-defined or open-ended problems. If a task poses a question with a specific set of steps required to answer it, there is no space for creativity. Not all tasks or learning goals are equally well suited for learning about creativity and developing creativity. There is certainly a place to keep children busy, especially if you are working from home and need to create times of uninterrupted work. Kits and mail in boxes of activities can be helpful. Children might learn important skills from them: how to follow directions, how to organize their materials, and systematically work on a project from beginning to end. However, these kits will not contribute to developing children’s creativity, even when they sound like they could.
The good news is that students work hard and persist longer on creative tasks. In a study of high school students, we compared how they work on academic and creative problems. Students were working equally hard on the two kinds of challenges (even though academic challenges had grades that depended on the work), but they were willing to stick with creative challenges.
3. Be flexible, allow exploration, and play
Creativity requires flexibility. Daily schedules that are school-like with half an hour or an hour blocks for different activities might be helpful for accomplishing specific tasks (e.g., completing sheets of math problem sets), but they are not likely to allow creativity.
Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi studied different groups of people, from adolescents to eminent creators. Across all groups, he found that working on something that is challenging but can be addressed by one’s skills, people enter a state he called flow. In this state, people are fully absorbed in and focused on the activity, and as a result, they lose track of time. Interrupting the flow because of fixed timed schedules can impede and demotivate creativity.
Of course, creativity does not mean absolute freedom and it does not happen by winging it. Planning is important, but plans should be flexible because creativity does not happen in a straight line. Rather, it is common that creative work stalls and restarts. Students might tear a paper of their painting or delete their computer code in frustration. The key is to return to it and reengage. The original idea for the Pixar movie Up was to feature a floating city on an alien planet where two brothers contend to inherit their father's throne. As we now know, the only similarity with the final movie is that a floating city became a floating house.
Creativity emerges from exploration and play. Adolescents and adults play with and explore ideas. For young children, play takes a form of imagining and enacting events, interactions, and worlds. Imagination in children’s pretend play predicts their creative thinking in their adolescent years. Like much else, the ability to imagine a wooden block being a ward of an animal hospital or an outpost on Mars can be flexed and built like a muscle. Preschools and kindergarten classrooms face increasing requirements to teach academic skills, reducing the amount of time for pretend play and implicitly or explicitly seeing it as a waste of time. This plague can provide young children with the crucial opportunity for pretend play.
The nature of modern parenting and educational systems alike is to be compelled to help students, both by structuring their time and steps towards success. Psychologist and philosopher Allison Gopnik has described this tendency using an analogy of a carpenter and a gardener. Carpenters work toward a specific build and know a specific list of steps to follow to get there. Gardeners create the conditions for plants to flourish, they prepare the ground and weed as necessary. But they realize that the garden will not look in every detail how they planned or what they originally imagined.
The analogy of the carpenter and gardener is especially apt if we aim to nurture creativity in children. We can provide conditions – open-ended projects based on their interests, flexible time, and plans. In the world that tends to program every waking moment of time, this challenge to allow children opportunities for exploration requires much courage. Just like social distancing where were accomplish a lot (prevention) by not doing much (actively), we will help creativity by not scheduling and closely planning students’ time.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. Glăveanu, V. P. (2011). Is the lightbulb still on? Social representations of creativity in a western context. The International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving, 21, 53–72. Gopnik, A. (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the new science of child development tells us about the relationship between parents and children. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Lee, A. W., & Russ, S. W. (2018). Pretend play, divergent thinking, and self-perceptions of creativity: A longitudinal study. The International Journal of Creativity & Problem Solving, 28(1), 73–88.