Cultivating Creativity

By Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director, Providence Children’s Museum

Creativity — like play and love — eludes definition.  We have a common understanding that artists — painters, sculptors, poets, composers, designers — are creative.  Sometimes overlooked is the creative thinking that goes on outside the arts.  Every good teacher creatively makes learning meaningful for students with a range of abilities and interests.  Parents find creative solutions to the challenges of raising children all the time.  And kids are incredibly creative.

Creativity is inventive, imaginative and, above all, playful.  It has to do with “what if…” thinking, with trying new ways to solve a problem, and very much with looking for new problems to solve.  When considering the human face from a very different angle — or from every angle at once — Picasso was wrestling with a problem he posed himself.  That’s the way scientific inquiry works, too.  Science couldn’t move forward if scientists didn’t ask “what if…?”  And that’s the way children’s play works: “What if I put this board across this stream?  Could I make a bridge?” “What if I were a lion and you were a mouse and I chased you?”  That’s creative thinking.

A classic exercise to get adults’ creative juices flowing is to take an object and ask, “What could this be?” — the point being to come up with as many possibilities as you can.  Kids need no such exercise.  A wooden block becomes a microphone, a cell phone, a little car to zoom along the floor.  A stick becomes a magic wand, a sword or a boat to float in a stream.  Children’s thinking, especially when they’re very young, is so flexible and fluid, they’d far outscore most adults on any creativity test.

I’m concerned that for so many people, creativity diminishes over time.  That’s a shame, but not a surprise.  Schools, teaching to the test, give kids the idea that there’s one right answer.  Push-button toys and increasing amounts of time spent in front of screens — passively watching or interacting with pre-programmed games — are creativity killers.  In the Alliance for Childhood’s important report “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” authors Edward Miller and Joan Almon call this a tragedy:

No human being can achieve his full potential if his creativity is stunted in childhood.  And no nation can thrive in the 21st century without a highly creative and innovative workforce.  Nor will democracy survive without citizens who can form their own independent thoughts and act on them.

We need to nurture childhood creativity and ensure it extends into adulthood.  One important way to do this is to provide plenty of opportunities for open-ended play and exploration.  Sticks and blocks.  Markers and paper.  Clay.  Magnets.  Water, sand, mud.  Flights of imagination.  Let’s resist the creativity-killing trends and encourage and rejoice in our children’s capacity for creative thinking.  Let’s learn from them to become more creative ourselves.  Maybe join them in a mud pie making session.  There sure isn’t only one right way to make a mud pie.

Creative play abounds in Providence Children’s Museum’s new Discovery Studio, a vibrant art and science exploration space.  Create with natural and recycled materials; investigate light, color and textures; tackle engineering challenges; and much more.  Discovery Studio is open for self-guided exploration most days in August, with some facilitated activities. Try a different theme each week!  Click here for program details.  And learn more about Discovery Studio on the Museum’s blog.

About Children's Museum
The mission of Providence Children's Museum is to inspire and celebrate learning through active play and exploration. The Museum creates and presents interactive play and learning environments and hands-on programs for children ages 1 - 11 and their families. Located in Providence's Jewelry District. Museum educators and other staff contribute monthly articles about topics related to children's play and learning. Articles advocate for the importance of play to children's healthy development and are full of great ideas and resources, activities to try at home, and much more. For additional ideas and resources, visit the Museum's website and blog. Also join the conversation about the need for play on the Museum-hosted PlayWatch listserv (

1 Comment on Cultivating Creativity

  1. love the museum and love you Janice! You are an inspiration. The discovery studio is fabulous, we finally got to visit it last week. What a fun place.

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