3 Ways to Teach Creativity to Young Kids

Three young children bang on pots and pans outside; 3 Ways to Teach Creativity to Young Kids

How to teach creativity and nurture it often gets lumped into “the arts,” but creativity is about so much more than that. It has to do with asking the right questions, encouraging pretend play in different settings, providing starting points and watching (or nurturing vs leading) the problem-solving at work.

One of the best places to turn up the volume on creative learning is outside. We asked Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Tinkergarten (now part of Highlights for Children) Meghan Fitzgerald, some of her team’s favorite go-tos when it comes to breaking down creativity into digestible, reachable, and teachable ideas for teachers and families. Here’s what she had to say.

What is creativity?

The term “creativity” gets bounced around frequently— it’s one of those words that is both common and nuanced, so we often miss all the underlying shades of meaning. On the flipside, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t agree that creativity is core to what makes us human, and the earlier we can support creative learning the better as it helps kids become more ready to learn, to maintain strong relationships, and to prepare for all that they’ll face as a generation.

Creativity has been core to Highlights for Children, Tinkergarten and Kindermusik from day one. Plus, inspiring young children to be creative is more necessary than ever for the kids we love and teach. At Tinkergarten, we define creativity as “the ability to both imagine original ideas or solutions to problems and make them happen.” 

We need creativity to do so many things, from expressing our ideas to solving problems to developing strong relationships and more. The world our kids will inherit is increasingly complex, and the pace of change is only accelerating. In order for all of us to survive and thrive, their generation is going to have to dream up and implement innovative solutions to some really thorny problems. 

A father paints alongside his daughter. Using things like paint to recreate items from their original state is one easy way to teach creativity.

Perhaps Sir Ken Robinson said it best, “Creativity is as important now in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” This imperative is why you’ll find “Creativity” right alongside literacy and STEAM in a Highlights preschool classroom. “Creative is one of our 4 C’s at Highlights, and it’s key to how, for decades, we’ve supported children in becoming their best selves,” explains Emily Hawkins of Highlights, Early Learning Team.

How do we teach creativity in the early years?

When we harness the power of play-based learning, we give kids the tools to become their best creative selves.

There’s no doubt that supporting all kids’ creativity is mission critical, and the good news is, they’re natural at being creative! With intentional and supportive experiences, they can build a strong and lasting foundation in creative thinking and action to carry forward. In short, creativity is a super-power that will help our children navigate and change the world.

Here are three of our favorite ways to inspire creativity in young children.

Prioritize imaginative play.

A 3-year-old child pretends to stir a pot during a Tinkergarten class. Pretend play in nature is one of the best ways to teach creativity.

When kids use their imaginations and engage in pretend play, they develop a key component of creativity—cognitive flexibility. We need this ability to adjust and adapt to new information in order to create new things. Kids are natural at pretending, so all we need as grown ups is to offer space, time and the right invitations.

You can:

  • Look for preschool programs and play-based activities that provide regular opportunities to engage kids in enriching stories, pretend play contexts and imaginative play projects
  • Work together with kids to turn a whole corner of your classroom or living room into outer space. 
  • Stoke kids empathy and creativity by setting up a pretend rescue shelter for stuffed animals.  
  • Devote a week or two to “bakery” play, turning a table into a bake shop! Or, if you have outdoor space, build a  mud pie factory!

Support divergent thinking through play.

Kids are born creative geniuses—wonderfully adept at divergent thinking, the aspect of creativity that we draw on in order to generate endless possibilities in novel situations. We can support this by giving kids plenty of playful practice with generating their own ideas.

Here are 3 no-cost activities you can try—watch this video to learn more!

A child balances on wooden stumps outside. Tinkergarten explains how to support divergent thinking through play in this short video.
  1. Explore what we at Tinkergarten call “Not A” play. Start with an everyday object like a box or a stick, then call it a “Not a Box” or “Not a Stick” and imagine and act out, instead of all of the many things it could be. You can do this with sounds, too! Use your voice or an instrument to make a sound. What could that sound be? Who or what could have made it? What kind of song can we build on if it becomes the first note?
  2. Continue creative conversations with questions like “Yes, that is a fishing pole…and what else could it be?” Want even more ways to spark improvisation in kids’ play? Check out this video.
  3. Go outside and encourage play with natural objects like rocks, sticks, or dirt. These “top toys of all time” can be used in limitless ways, so all you have to do is give kids a little boost and watch them create. 

Explore the Three Bs.

When the Tinkergarten team designed our Creativity curriculum, we leveraged what neuroscientists term the “three Bs”— breaking, bending, and blending. The “three B’s” are cognitive functions that underlie all innovative thinking. In our brains, we: 

  • Bend concepts, stretching them to their limits as we create, 
  • Break ideas apart, and 
  • Blend them together with others in order to innovate. 

When little kids learn, they use physical experiences to build a foundation for cognitive or thought-based understanding later on. That’s why these 3 basic strategies of bending, breaking and blending can be helpful when we are mapping children’s play/exploration to development of creativity. So, provide kids lots of opportunities to break, bend and blend objects! 

Here are a few of our favorites for supporting the Three Bs:

  • Parts & Wholes: Break up paper or objects from nature, then rearrange the pieces to create a fresh design. 
  • Weave: Use rubber bands to turn a piece of cardboard into a portable “loom” so kids can bend and weave objects in and out. 
  • Vocalize: Play with “bending” or changing your voice as you make sounds or sing. Try to sing a song everyone knows at a slow pace. Sing it again fast.

Keep learning about creativity!

A 4-year-old boy holds up a rock he transformed with a marker. Reimagining objects from their original state is a way to teach creativity and let the child lead the activity.

Thanks to our friends at Tinkergarten for these engaging activity ideas! We hope they help you take teaching creativity to the next level.

Curious to learn more about how purposeful outdoor play can support essential skills like creativity? Try a free 2-week trial of Tinkergarten for Teachers or Tinkergarten for Families. Would you love a curriculum based on Highlights’ decades of experience in helping kids be their most curious, creative, caring, and confident selves? Try a free month of Highlights’ Preschool with a Purpose! However you support kids’ natural creativity in your teaching, we cheer you on and wish you joy in the process.

This post was authored by Meghan Fitzgerald, Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Tinkergarten.

Why Halloween Should Last 365 Days a Year

child playing dress up

child playing dress upIt’s Halloween! In many parts of the world, this means dressing up in costumes and pretending to be a cowboy, ninja, ballet dancer, or even a cowboy ninja ballet dancer. (Hey, it could happen!) While the stores—and Pinterest—overflow with costume options for children this time of year, truth be told, children love dressing up and pretending all year long. And they should! It’s good for them.

Pretend play develops imagination, creativity, social skills, and language

Imitation is the first stage of pretend play and begins as an infant when a baby mimics an adult’s facial expressions. As children grow and imitation evolves, pretend play becomes more imaginative. Children use pretend play to re-examine life experiences by adding or changing what actually happened. Pretend play lets children try out their ideas and solve problems as they create characters and “rules” in their imaginary world.
During pretend play activities, social interaction between children—and participating adults—is usually characterized by a heightened use of action and language, helping to develop children’s language and social skills. In addition, pretend play helps children learn the difference between reality and fantasy, and even experience emotional support from parents as they pretend along with kids.
So, don’t put up those Halloween costumes on November 1. Keep them out all year round. After all, you never know when you might need a cowboy ninja ballet dancer to come save the day.

Learn more about Kindermusik at www.Kindermusik.com.

Contributed by Lisa Camino Rowell, a freelance writer in the Atlanta area.


FOL Fridays – Creativity: It's In All of Us

child playing dress up

child playing dress upCreativity isn’t a trait that some people have and others don’t.  It’s a way of using your mind and body as you engage in a task that has no prescribed approach.  In the creative process, your ideas, feelings, skills, and knowledge flow together in innovative ways, allowing you to make or learn something new.”
(“Creative Minds at Play” in Scholastic Parent & Child Dec./Jan. 1998 by Charlotte Doyle, Ph.D.)
Ideas for parents: There are many simple ways to effectively encourage your child’s creativity.  Here are just a few…

  • Ask open-ended questions or silly “What if…” kinds of questions.
  • Use the technique of scaffolding – Observe what your child is doing.  Copy it, then suggest or model a slight change to what they’re doing.  (This is a good technique with instrument play.)
  • Recycle paper towel tubes, plastic containers, and boxes and keep them available for open-ended play inspiration.
  • Keep a box of dress-up clothes in the playroom – from cowboy hats to princess shoes to tutus to a fireman’s vest to scarves.
  • Stock up on simple art supplies like large sheets of paper, washable markers, finger paints, and crayons.  Turn on some music and encourage your child to draw what he hears.
  • Turn off your cell phone, sit down, and play with your child.  Pretend play is a great way to relieve stress and bond with your child!

Try this Creative Activity with your Kids

Here’s a sample activity from Kindermusik@Home that allows your children to show their creative side. Watch these silly animals and let your kids imitate their movements – in their own creative way.
Shared by Theresa Case, whose Kindermusik program at Piano Central Studios in Greenville, SC, is proudly among the top 1% of Kindermusik programs worldwide.

When you run out of words

This post was shared with Minds on Music from Kindermusik educator Analiisa Reichlin. 

I sat at the dining room table with my head in my arms and just sobbed. Our studio email accounts had disappeared, our website was being migrated from a very slow, old server to a new one, and the ½ hour project turned into a week-long nightmare, and the site was down during our busiest time of the year.

Our dog Buddy had been bitten or stung by something, and had gone into anaphylactic shock. In addition, after 3 years of deals falling through at the last moment, we were just about to put an offer in on a house. But that was before the unexpected expenses that wiped our savings out.

It was only 7:30am on Tuesday. And the week really didn’t get much better. I’m sure you’ve had weeks like that, too. But before this gets too depressing…

I found myself frequently bursting into song this week. And of all the odd things – hymns from my childhood. There was something comforting about them. I began wonder why.

I remember when I took my husband-to-be, Karl, to his first musical – Showboat. I grew up on musicals, and went to as many as I could when I lived in New York City. So I was totally dumbfounded when he turned to me shortly into the first act and said, “They just burst into song. Why did they do that?”

I’m thinking, “Well, it’s a musical.

Years later I asked [my Kindermusik partner] Miss Allison (with her degree in musical theater), why do they burst into song? And she said that the character has reached the point where the emotional intensity of the moment can no longer be conveyed with words.

So this week, when I ran out of words, I found myself singing. But why the hymns? Certainly because the words brought me comfort. But also because when I sang them, I was brought back to the time when I was young, surrounded by my family, in a moment when I felt very loved, and at peace. Where I needed to be emotionally this week.

I got to thinking…What songs did I sing to my babies, and now with my children? Because those are the songs that they are going to sing when they are grown up and need to remember the emotional security and comfort of those who loved them best.

-by Miss Analiisa, who knows that the math formulas she teaches her children may not be remembered when they are older, but the music and songs she instills in them will be in their memories forever.

Music and movement: magical ingredients to learning

Music and movement are magical ingredients to learning for both the child and parent. A baby’s first communication is through movement. A toddler immediately responds to lively music with silly gyrations and flailing limbs – and while these movements usually make us giggle, to him they are serious attempts to coordinate movement with rhythmic patterns. The preschooler seems to be constantly moving – leaping off couches, rolling down hills, and spinning around and around until she falls down in a giggling flop on the floor.

Movement is fundamental for the development of the central nervous system, and science proves it. But what’s more, movement and rhythm are also essential for the development of the soul. These are things that can’t be measured with research and studies.

When a parent moves with her infant, a special bonding takes place that is key to social and emotional growth. When a parent sings to her child, not only are language skills being developed, but also a sense of love, comfort and harmony. The special touching, laughing, and rhythmic moving that takes place in a music and movement class lays a very strong and much needed foundation for a happy, healthy and joyful life!

Here are just a few of the ways that Kindermusik children learn through the interactive music and movement activities of the Kindermusik classroom:

  • Intentional touch is designed to provide stimulation of the nervous system, relaxation and bonding.
  • Activities involve unilateral, bi-lateral and cross-lateral movements that help develop the brain and muscles.
  • Movement and dance steps allow the caregiver and child to experience different rhythms and locomotor movements.
  • Synchronized dances develop sequencing, provide reassuring repetition and social interaction.
  • Expressive movement provides variety, creativity, and opposing feelings such as fast and slow, high and low.
  • Rocking and swinging stimulate the vestibular system, which is so important to balance and even eye movement.
  • Props, such as the “humongous” scarves and parachutes, provide tactile and visual stimulation.

So put on your Kindermusik CD at home and don’t worry about performing the dances “just right.” Don’t even worry about right and left! Simply move to the music and have fun! It all makes a difference.

-This post was adapted from a past issue of Kindermusik Notes and was originally written by Anne Green Gilbert, Director of the Creative Dance Center and Kaleidoscope Dance Company in Seattle, Washington, and a consultant for Kindermusik International.

The family that laughs together…

Overtone Singing Crazy Sounds

Giving your child a simple smile can improve his or her self image and brain development. When your child sees you smile, it not only makes her feel good, it strengthens connections in the brain as well.

Studies have shown that smiling and laughter can strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure, and reduce stress levels. And a healthy sense of humor can help a child handle problems as they grow into adults, as well as enhance the social skills they need to make friends.

Along with smiling, laughter is a sound that’s naturally interesting to your toddler. As he’s getting ready to learn to talk, he needs help learning how to listen so he can distinguish one sound from another to form his first words. Play active listening games like “One ha-ha-happy family”, described below. As you listen, exaggerate your body posture, lean into the sound, brighten your eyes, and model the body expressions of a good, active listener for a happy, talking toddler.

One ha-ha-happy family
Laugh out loud. Ask your toddler to make the sound back. Laugh lots of different ways to your toddler. Wait for her to copy you, and vice versa. Record the sound of your toddler laughing. (Family idea: Make a “Laughter Scrapbook”! Record your family laughing together and all the different ways you can laugh. Keep adding to the recording as the years go and by and hear how the sound of your laughter changes.)

As well as listening games, why not combine physical games with music? This will give your toddler something to laugh about, learn more words about, and develop better coordination.

When you’re a toddler, running is usually accompanied by fits of laughter. This new found physical control makes games like “Ring around the Rosy” a huge hit. Rosy can fall down or do the silly walk – have fun by exploring lots of ways Rosy can “all fall down” by doing other movements that your toddler finds funny, like playing chase or running. Explore sound with your baby before bedtime. Put on your favorite lullaby (or sing it yourself) and play along gently with a musical instrument.

Say “Cheese!”
Smiling and laughing play a large part in the bonding and attachment process that help your child feel secure and safe. Children primarily use their parents’ facial expressions as a guide for behavior. The emotional experiences a child has (especially during the first years) help shape emotional responses throughout life. It’s worth remembering that a simple smile is one building block for your relationship with your child. Your face is where your child looks for reassurement, comfort, and  attention. So don’t be afraid to show your child those pearly whites!


Music and art are peas in a pod

A little child gripping a paintbrush in her hand can quickly discover her “inner conductor.” Smocked in your old shirt and hovering over the kitchen table, arms raised, she conducts the swirl of colors on—and sometimes off—the page.

That’s just one small example of how music and art can go hand in hand. Plus, the same activities that develop musical skills in a young child also develop skills that a young artist needs: hand-eye coordination, creative expression, and visual literacy.

Want some ideas for bringing music and art together with your child? We’ve got some!

For Babies…

Your face is the artwork. You instinctively tend to hold your baby about eight to nine inches from your face—just close enough to provide her with needed visual stimulation. In the first two months of her life, that’s also her best field of vision. According to Carla Hannaford, author of Smart Moves, Why Learning is Not All in Your Head, sight is the least developed sense in a young baby. Most learning—almost 90 percent—occurs through touch and taste. Visual literacy (the ability to see texture and perspective in two-dimensional pictures) is learned later. You can help your baby develop visual literacy by showing her things that encourage her eyes to move. And in the first year of life, her favorite thing to look at is your face.

Your baby loves the contrast between your bright eyes and dark mouth, the many lines of your face, your facial expressions, and so on. The distance between your facial features begins to give your baby the information she needs to build her visual literacy.

Visual and auditory experiences actually shape the wiring of the brain. While seeing moving objects is not necessarily easy for infants, your newborn’s attention will also be attracted to bold, sharp patterns and objects. Showing your infant high contrast items such as black-and-white designs, brightly colored toys, and smiling faces is a great way to support his or her development.

Here are a few more activities to develop eye strength:

  • > When you read together, trace your finger across the words as you read. This encourages your baby to follow your finger.
  • > Hold and shake a rattle or instrument. Move it slowly allowing your baby to track the instrument with her eyes.
  • > Sing. Research has shown that babies will turn their heads to look in the direction of the sound of their parent’s voice.

For Toddlers…

The development of your toddler’s drawing ability begins when the scribbling stage is over. Sometime between the ages of 12 and 18 months, your toddler will probably attempt to “write” by making marks on paper, and at about 18 to 24 months she may surprise you by drawing vertical and horizontal lines or a circle, according to Art and Creative Development for Young Children by Robert Schirrmacher.

The toddler years also mark a phase of drawing sometimes referred to as “Potato People.” These are drawings that feature wide bodies with stick figure legs and arms. Since your toddler spent so much time looking at your face as a baby, much of what he draws in the first year will be faces like these with appendages as an afterthought. Give him plenty of time with paper and crayons to help him develop his drawing skills and move beyond the “Potato People” phase (despite how cute those drawings end up being).

For a colorful activity, “paint” with tissue paper:

  • > Cut the tissue paper into strips, or squares and put a very small amount of water into shallow bowls.
  • > Show your toddler how to scrunch up the tissue and dip into the water to create a watercolor effect.
  • > Encourage your toddler to tell you all about his creations. Talk about the colors, ask him about the shapes. To incorporate music, can you two make up a little song about the creation? Point and label—as you do with everything else in your toddler’s world.

For Preschoolers…

With preschoolers, you can dive in and draw to the music! With her increasingly abstract reasoning skills, her imagination is soaring. She’s also more physically coordinated and able to hold a pencil, crayons, and scissors with greater control. And while she enjoys being to able to draw more geometric shapes, much of the preschooler’s choice of color, is emotional, according to Art and Creative Development for Young Children.

What does the music look like? The emotional aspect of music, combined with tempo and rhythm, make drawing to music a perfect activity for this age.

  • > To really get the imagination going, pick out some music and ask your preschooler to “draw out the music.” Ask him if this is blue music or red music. What would purple sound like?
  • > Use the paper for wall art or wrapping paper. Glue it to bookmarks and give them to Grandma and Grandpa.