Early Childhood Creativity – What Are the Answers?

Our Associate Director for Programming Development, Erica Fortescue discuss how teachers can translate creativity into early childhood practice with Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Driving Question:  How can teachers translate a belief in creativity into sound practice?

Each year hundreds of preschool and K-5 teachers come to the Bay Area Discovery Museum to participate in our Center for Childhood Creativity’s immersive professional development program, Building Blocks of Creative Thinking. Almost all of the teachers we work with share a general belief that creativity is an essential skill, yet they arrive full of questions about how to translate that interest into classroom practice. Let me share some of their favorite questions and our answers.

How can creativity be defined in terms of teachable skills in early childhood and elementary classrooms?

Creativity isn’t just found in the arts, but across academic disciplines. It lies at the heart of deeper learning and is a key component in later success throughout life. One of our preferred definitions of creativity is the capacity for original thought, new connections, adaptive reasoning and inventive solutions.

If I want to increase the creative skills in my students, how can I start?

I encourage teachers to begin by reflecting on the current state of learning in their classrooms, guided by these crucial questions:

  • Do my students have sufficient time for play?
  • How can  I shift my question style away from closed-ended questions for which there is only one right answer, toward a question style with open-ended questions with multiple correct answers?
  • How does  my curriculum include project-based learning experiences in which students practice thinking like a designer, uncovering inventive solutions, and prototyping answers for the problem?
  • How can  my classroom an environment support students taking intellectual risks and developing habits of persistence and creative confidence in the face of setbacks?
Why is play so important to creativity?

There is a large body of work by Sandra Russ and her colleagues indicating that the quality of fantasy and imagination in early grade school years correlates with divergent thinking ability in high school—an effect that spans over 10 years. Think about how active a young children’s brain becomes, how full of possibility it is during fantasy play. Yet, for many children, time devoted to open-ended play drops precipitously upon entering grade school. K-3 teachers and administrators often feel compelled to remove opportunities for extended imaginary play during class time, and also assign homework that limits children’s time for imaginary play once classroom time is over. Educators are often overjoyed to learn that the research on brain development of children aged 0-10 sends a consistent message to let them play!

Why do open-ended questions promote creative thinking?

Consider the profound difference between testing for understand of arithmetic by asking a closed-ended question such as “What does 4+4= ?” versus asking a child “What numbers can you add together to make 8?” Answering both questions requires students to use math facts. However, the first question has only one right answer. The second question, an open-ended one, has infinite answers. The magic of open-ended questions is that they allow students to elaborate on ideas, play around with concepts and go deeper if they have already mastered the topic. Children answering open-ended questions build complex neural networks. As you review your lesson plan for tomorrow, look at your questions.

What do prototyping, persistence and resilience have to do with creativity?

At age 7, my son was charged with designing a functional catapult with a design partner. He declared with glee “I’m an inventor. All inventors make mistakes. I’m prototyping. If it doesn’t work then I will make changes and try it again.” The integration of design thinking into elementary classrooms through project-based learning experiences helps students to develop creative habits, often with the added benefit of skill development in engineering and science. The Nueva School’s framework for design thinking in the classroom is an excellent visual guide for teachers, The D School at Stanford offers a wealth of resources, as does the new book Creative Confidence by IDEO co-founders David and Tom Kelley.

The process of creative thinking—bridging from idea generation through adaptive reasoning toward inventive solutions—requires students who persist in the face of setbacks. As a teacher, ask yourself, “How can I de-catastrophize failure in my classroom and normalize making mistakes?” One first grade teacher I know calls attention to her “mistake of the day” and her students love helping her find her mistakes. Creative solutions are developed by students who can view mistakes as an opportunity for learning. There is a rich and growing body of research (see Carol Dweck, Ph.D., Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, and Angela Duckworth, Ph.D.) that sheds light on the many benefits of seeding academic tenacity in our youngest students.

For more information on creative thinking, play, and resilience, please see the bookshelf and articles posted on the Center for Childhood Creativity website.

This article originally appeared at Partnership for 21st Century Skills.


Erica Fortescue is the Associate Director for Program Development at the Center for Childhood Creativity, a research and teacher training institute of the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, CA. She is a longtime educator with more than 15 years of experience as a K-12 classroom teacher, college access program director and inquiry-based science curriculum designer.

Motivation: Fostering a Growth Mindset

Dweck quoteMost parents would not give a second thought to praising children’s abilities to boost their self-esteem and increase motivation. However, three decades of research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues demonstrates that the type of praise that children hear can influence behavioral outcomes including motivation, persistence, and achievement that are associated with learning skills.

Dweck’s work shows that our mindset permeates all aspects of our lives and shapes our attitudes, goals, and perspective on work, relationships and how we raise our kids. Additional real-world studies by Gunderson et al. show that when very young children hear process-based praise (e.g., “you worked hard”), they are more likely to adopt a growth mindset as they grow up. The research suggests that interventions focusing on the type of praise parents give to their toddlers can have a long-term impact on children’s beliefs about intelligence.

Ways to foster a growth mindset:

Fixed v. Growth MindsetPay close attention to how you praise children, even at the youngest ages. Does the praise focus on their hard work leading up to the positive result or your child’s intelligence or talent?

Try to focus on the process (e.g., effort, choices) rather than product to foster a growth mindset. For example, instead of saying, “Wow, you got an A on that test! You’re so smart!” try saying something like, “Wow, you did really well on that test! All of the time you spent studying really paid off.”

An except from Shared Discoveries: Positive parent-child relationships and child development, written by Center for Childhood Creativity Associate Director of Research Helen Hadani.


Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.

Gunderson, E. A., Gripshover, S. J., Romero, C., Dweck, C. S., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Levine, S. C. (2013). Parent praise to 1-3 year-olds predicts children’s motivational frameworks 5 years later. Child Development, 84(5), 1526-1541.

Impact of Adult Language on Children’s Beliefs

According to decades of research within various areas of psychology, statements such as “boys are good at math” communicate that there exists an essence that is intrinsic to boys that makes them “good at math.” Increasingly, researchers have examined the possibility that generic statements may lead children to learn stereotypes; if boys are good at math, what does that say about girls

In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers led by Marjorie Rhodes, a developmental psychologist at New York University, examined the consequences that generic language could have on children’s “essentialist” beliefs about social groups.

In the first part of the study, children were read a picture book about characters named “Zarpies.” zarpies_scaredOne group of children heard generic statements such as “Zarpies are scared of ladybugs,” while another group of children heard specific statements such as “This Zarpie is scared of ladybugs.

Afterwards, children were asked such questions as “Why is this Zarpie scared of ladybugs?” Independent coders examined children’s responses and tallied up the number of “essentialist” responses, which could have included statements such as “because Zarpies born scared” or “that’s how Zarpies are.”

The results of the study showed that hearing generic statements about Zarpies more than doubled the odds of children providing an “essentialist” response about Zarpies they had never seen before.

zarpsIn a second part of the study, the researchers turned the tables by testing whether believing that social groups have essentialist characteristics would lead parents to produce generic language to children. If so, the results would suggest that, by using generic language about groups, parents may unconsciously transmit the kind of beliefs that can create and maintain stereotypes.

In this part of the study, Rhodes and her colleagues got one group of parents to believe that the Zarpies were very different in everyway from all other forms of life. Another group of parents was led to believe that Zarpies were actually quite similar to other forms of life. After parents learned this information, they were given a modified version of the picture book about Zarpies that did not contain any text. The task for the parents was to describe the events in the picture book to their children just as they would any other picture book.

The results showed that parents who had been led to believe that Zarpies were “essentially” different from other forms of life actually produced more generic statements about Zarpies. For example, parents who held essentialist beliefs gave such descriptions as “Zarpies like to play” while parents who did not hold essentialist beliefs said things such as “This Zarpie likes to play.

These results are powerful. They suggest that generic language can inadvertently promote essentialist beliefs, and that essentialist beliefs can themselves produce generic language.

Future research will undoubtedly be needed in order to more precisely understand how hearing generic language can lead to different attitudes about social groups in children’s every-day lives. For the meantime, the researchers note that their work can contribute to “more effective efforts to reduce societal prejudice.”


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Shared Discoveries: Positive parent-child relationships and child development

We are pleased to announce the release of our very first research publication: Shared Discoveries: Positive parent-child relationships and child development, written by Center for Childhood Creativity Associate Director of Research Helen Hadani.

This paper shows the value of what the Center for Childhood Creativity does best— gaining access to cutting edge research, highlighting those studies with most relevance to the practitioner community, and then effectively translating the research findings so that they are accessible to teachers and parents outside the world of academia. Throughout this paper, we offer practical recommendations to apply this research on positive parent-child relationships in classrooms, informal learning environments and homes.

This paper illustrates how the relationship between a parent and child has an enormous impact on every aspect of the child’s development. The three themes that emerged from the research are cognition and learning, informal learning environments and play, and social and emotional development. Organized by these themes, the paper surveys some of the most recent and noteworthy research in language acquisition, motivation, executive function, academic engagement, free-choice learning and informal science environments, play, prosocial behavior, peer relationships and emotion regulation.

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Researchers from numerous fields including psychology, sociology and education have documented and investigated the impact of parent-child interactions beginning in infancy through adolescence and into early adulthood. The findings from this diverse body of research support the conventional wisdom that parents have a profound and enduring impact on their child’s development and path to success in school and beyond.

A key theory from developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky emphasizes that development takes place through direct interactions with other people—parents, teachers, siblings, friends—who support and guide children’s cognitive and social activities. Guided participation by knowledgeable adults allows children to participate at a higher level than they could manage on their own. Parents and children participate in these types of interactions in everyday activities such as putting together a puzzle, learning to ride a bike, and discovering how bees make honey. Children, most of the time, are the learner in these interactions, but they can also serve as the teacher.

Over the next several months, we’ll be providing excerpts on this blog about this important research.To read the entire paper, please visit: http://www.centerforchildhoodcreativity.org/research/

Say Goodbye to Your Typical Goodnight Routine

Even though the day is done, the opportunities for creative thinking don’t have to be. Elizabeth Rieke shares insight on how to stimulate creative thinking skills, while settling your kids down for the night.

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How to Stretch Their Brains on the Holiday Commute

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With the holidays upon us, travel picks up. But how will to survive a trek of any distance with stir-crazy kids in tow? Challenge yourself to rely on some old-fashioned fun rather than digital distractions – even for a few minutes.

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If You Say, “Try This”…They Won’t!

turkeyAs Thanksgiving nears and families labor in the kitchen to prepare a wide array of foods, many see this feast as a great opportunity to introduce children to new foods.

However, trying to convince a child to try something will often have the opposite effect. When was the last time you tried something new simply because someone told you to?

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How To Dress Up Your Kid’s Morning Routine

Getting kids dressed in the morning can be a chore, for them and for you. We consulted with Center for Childhood Creativity CEO, Elizabeth Rieke, for a few simple ideas to make mornings more fun and less stressful.

Her insight is that by introducing imaginary play to getting dressed for the day, kids won’t think of it as a chore. Instead, they’ll eagerly transform themselves into other beings — like fairies, princesses and superheroes. Yes, this means you have to be okay with taking a superhero to soccer. This is good for them. Dress up plays an important role in childhood development. It allows them to explore roles they observe in the world, which is empowering.

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Waking Up Doesn’t Have To Be Hard

Our mission is to ignite and advance creative thinking. But at 7 o’clock in the morning? Yes! Get your kids off to a positively-energized, focused start with these tips from Center for Childhood Creativity CEO and Executive Director, Elizabeth Rieke. She’s even tried these at home — successfully. Continue reading