Creativity is the ability to think up and design new inventions, produce works of art, solve problems in new ways, or develop an idea based on an original, novel, or unconventional approach.
Creativity is the ability to see something in a new way, to see and solve problems no one else may know exists, and to engage in mental and physical experiences that are new, unique, or different. Creativity is a critical aspect of a person's life, starting from inside the womb onward through adulthood.
Although many people equate creativity with intelligence, the two terms are not synonymous, and it is not necessary to have a genius-level IQ in order to be creative. While creative people do tend to have average or above-average scores on IQ tests, beyond an IQ of about 120 there is little correlation between intelligence and creativity. Researchers have found environment to be more important than heredity in influencing creativity, and a child's creativity can be either strongly encouraged or discouraged by early experiences at home and in school.
Standard intelligence tests measure convergent thinking, which is the ability to come up with a single correct answer. However, creativity involves divergent thinking, which is the ability to come up with new and unusual answers.
Creative individuals tend to share certain characteristics, including a tendency to be more impulsive or spontaneous than others. Nonconformity (not going along with the majority) can also be a sign of creativity. Many creative individuals are naturally unafraid of experimenting with new things; furthermore, creative people are often less susceptible to peer pressure, perhaps because they also tend to be self-reliant and unafraid to voice their true feelings even if those go against conventional wisdom.
Creativity in childhood is typically assessed through paper-and-pencil measures such as the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. These tests are designed to measure divergent thinking, such as fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration. Signification criticisms have been raised about these tests as measures of creativity. First is the general problem that there are no universally accepted definitions of creativity. Second, critics of creativity tests argue that these tests do not measure creativity per se but instead reflect the specific abilities that are assessed by the tests. Third, the scores on these tests often depend partly on speed, which is not necessarily a criterion for creativity. A final consistent concern relates to the scoring of creativity tests, which by definition are somewhat subjective. Thus, the reliability of such tests is commonly questioned.
Scientific research in the late twentieth century revealed how the quality of interaction with unborn infants affects their later development of creative abilities. From birth to 18 months, infants can be encouraged to engage in creativity by playing with a variety of safe household materials, such as margarine tubs, empty boxes, and large empty spools. Parents and caregivers can encourage experimentation by showing excitement and interest in what babies do.
Parents can encouraged infants to develop creativity by singing to the infant and playing music, moving the infant's hands to music, hanging a colorful mobile over the crib, placing pictures and photos where the baby can focus on them, and playing sound games with infants, such making up nonsense words or using rhyming words when talking to them.
From ages 18 months to four years, toddlers have progressively better hand and eye coordination. Caregivers should give them opportunities to develop this coordination by allowing them to draw with water-based paints, with chalk, and with crayons. Toddlers also can develop their creativity by pasting, tearing, cutting, printing, modeling with clay or play dough, or working with various materials to create collage, and for the older child, experimenting with fabric, tie dye, batik, printing, and simple woodwork.
From around 12 months, children may begin to imitate things that adults do. Real fantasy play begins at around ages 18 to 21 months. This should not prevent caregivers from playing imaginatively from a younger age, since fantasy play is linked to creativity. Studies have shown that children with very active fantasies tend to have personality traits that contribute to creativity—originality, spontaneity, verbal fluency, and a higher degree of flexibility in adapting to new situations.
Children who fantasize a lot have unusually good inner resources for amusing themselves. Parents can provide materials that lend themselves to fantasy play (dressing-up clothes, dolls, housecleaning sets, and stuffed animals), play pretending games with their children, and
Adults should start involving toddlers with creative activities as soon as they feel the child will enjoy them. Adults need to remember that young toddlers are not skillful enough to consciously produce works of art. At 18 months they may be more ready for creative play and even at this age, they may spend no more than five minutes of concentration on any one activity.
Preschoolers can use the same materials as toddlers but can use them in more complex ways. By age five, many children start drawing recognizable objects. By age six, they are usually interested in explaining their art works. They also like to tell stories and can make books of their stories, including drawing pictures to accompany the writing.
At this age fantasy play becomes more complex. Preschoolers often direct each other on what to do or say as they play "Let's pretend." Play is a critical part of developing creativity, according to Mary Mindess, a child psychology professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Play allows children to construct meaning for themselves," Mindess stated in an article in the August 2001 newsletter The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter. "Two children may share an experience, but each will process the experience differently. Very often during play, children take things they see in real life, or things they imagine they experience—like something they read in a book or saw on television—and make meaning of it," she wrote. As an example, she cites Mark Twain's stories about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as good role-playing examples. "They include many examples of play," she wrote. "If, as in a scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a child pretends to be a riverboat captain, there's a lot more to that role-playing than simply knowing what a captain does and some basic boat terminology. There are feelings that accompany the role-playing: mainly, the power of being captain and the satisfaction in the ability to make decisions."
Early school-age children, six to nine years, incorporate lots of fantasy into their play, including action games with superheroes. Children of this age group spend much of their time daydreaming. Some daydreams become "real" as children begin to act them out in stories and plays.
Many researchers believe that in order to foster creativity in schools, education should be based on the discovery of knowledge and the development of critical attitudes, rather than on the passive absorption of knowledge. They believe this applies whether the class is in art, history, science, or humanities. However, most school teaching in the United States is based on the child's ability to memorize. The highest marks are often given to those who merely studied their lessons well. The pupil whose creative side is more developed may be considered a disruptive member of the class.
For this reason some educators decided to encourage creativity outside the school system. Science clubs are open to the young, in different countries, in which students can unleash their ideas and imagination. Student science fairs are also useful in developing creativity.
In the United States, children who participate in the nationwide invention contest organized by the Weekly Reader do not have to submit a model. A drawing or a photograph is sufficient to enter the contest, the purpose of which is to stimulate creative thinking among all the students in a class, all becoming involved in the process of invention either individually or in small groups. The class then chooses the best invention that will be presented later at the level of the national contest.
At ages nine to 12, children's creativity is greatly affected by peer influence. They increase the amount of detail and use of symbols in drawings. They also have expanded their individual creative differences and begin to develop their own set of creative values.
Teenagers are highly critical of the products they make and ideas they have. They try to express themselves creatively in a more adult-like way. Their creativity is influenced by their individual differences, physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. In most high schools, classes that stress creativity, such as art, music, writing, and drama are electives and many may not be required. For many adolescents, high school is their last opportunity to take these creative classes.
Also, teens become more self-aware and self-conscious. This focus often causes them to conform to their peers, which stifles their creativity and makes their thoughts less flexible. Flexibility refers to the ability to consider various alternatives at the same time.
Rewards or incentives appear to interfere with creativity and reduce children's flexibility of thought. Studies show that any constraints such as structured instructions reduce creative flexibility in children. Many
Environment appears to play a greater role than heredity in the development of creativity: identical twins reared apart show greater differences in creativity than in intellectual ability. Family environments with certain characteristics have been found to be more conducive to creativity than others. One of these characteristics is a relaxed parental attitude rather than one that is overly anxious or authoritarian.
On the whole, the families of creative children discipline them without rigid restrictions, teaching them respect for values above rules. Similarly, they emphasize achievement rather than grades. The parents in such homes generally lead active, fulfilling lives themselves and have many interests. Finally, they reinforce creativity in their children by a general attitude of respect and confidence toward them and by actively encouraging creative pursuits and praising the results. It has been found that creativity in both children and adults is affected by positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement has also been shown to boost fifth graders' scores on creativity tests, help sixth graders write more original stories, and lead college students to produce novel word associations. Studies have also found that positively reinforcing one kind of creative activity encourages original thinking in other areas as well.
Just as certain actions and attitudes on the part of parents can encourage creativity, others have been found to discourage it. Devising restrictive guidelines or instructions for an activity reduces its potential as a creative experience. Unrestricted, imaginative play is central to creativity in children—exposure to new objects and activities stimulates the senses, reinforces exploratory impulses, and results in the openness to new experiences and ideas that foster creative thinking. In addition, anything that takes the focus away from the creative act itself and toward something external to it can be damaging. For example, knowing that one's efforts are going to be evaluated tends to restrict the creative impulse, as does knowing of the possibility of a prize or other reward.
Schools as well as families can encourage creativity by offering children activities that give them an active role in their own learning, allow them freedom to explore within a loosely structured framework, and encourage them to participate in creative activities for the sheer enjoyment of it rather than for external rewards.
When to call the doctor
For decades, scientists have known that eminently creative individuals have a much higher rate of manic depression or bipolar disorder than does the general population. But few controlled studies have been done to build the link between mental illness and creativity. One study that does support such a link was presented at the 2002 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association by Stanford University researchers Connie Strong and Terence Ketter. Using personality and temperament tests, they found healthy artists to be more similar in personality to individuals with manic depression than to healthy people in the general population.
While creativity itself is not a sign of mental illness, parents should be aware that there is a much higher degree of mental illness, especially depression and bipolar disorder, in creative children than in their less creative peers.
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American Creativity Association. PO Box 5856, Philadelphia, PA 19128. Web site: <www.amcreativityassoc.org>.
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Ken R. Wells
Attention deficit disorder (ADD)—Disorder characterized by a short attention span, impulsivity, and in some cases hyperactivity.
Batik—A method of hand-printing a fabric by covering with removable wax the parts that will not be dyed.
Bipolar disorder—A severe mental illness, also known as manic depression, in which a person has extreme mood swings, ranging from a highly excited state, sometimes with a false sense of well being, to depression.
Convergent thinking—The ability to come up with a single correct answer.
Divergent thinking—The ability to come up with new and unusual answers.
Hereditary—Something which is inherited, that is passed down from parents to offspring. In biology and medicine, the word pertains to inherited genetic characteristics.
Schizophrenia—A severe mental illness in which a person has difficulty distinguishing what is real from what is not real. It is often characterized by hallucinations, delusions, and withdrawal from people and social activities.