SHERIDAN — To an adult, masking tape and a cardboard box likely mean one thing: time to organize the garage.
But for a child, a few holes for wheels can transform that box into a race car and an ordinary day into a day on the race track. With some markers and glue, that same box can become a child’s robot buddy, or with scissors and a little dental floss, he might just make his own guitar.
Children are inherently curious, and that curiosity often leads to creativity. While the colder months push us inside, they don’t have to stunt our creativity.
“There are things you can do that you don’t have to spend extra time prepping for that are really fun to do with your kid to foster creativity,” said Mandy Dube, preschool coordinator for the Child Development Center Region II Preschool.
“For parents at home, give your kids a bucket or box of loose items, maybe a box and packing materials or balls or random toys,” Dube said. “Let them come up with a way to use them.”
Dube said the CDC focuses on giving children age-appropriate materials and letting them come up with ways to use them.
“That means not sitting down and giving them instructions on, ‘This is the way you play with a material or toy,’ but giving them the freedom to be creative with toys and build things in a way that they want to,” Dube said.
Anna Holder, an art teacher at Sheridan Junior High School, said she also allows her students to explore, finding creative ways to express themselves through their art.
Sometimes that means making mistakes, which often leads to even more creativity.
“I try to remind students that there is no such thing as ‘perfect’ in art, and that while the goal is to always improve and get better, making errors or mistakes is a big part of how we learn and grow as artists,” Holder said. “I find that when we celebrate our mistakes as learning opportunities, students are less afraid to dive into the creative process.”
Because the teachers at the CDC are teaching such young children, they have freedom to go where the kids want to go — meaning, they might spend an entire month studying dogs, because they don’t have the same curriculum requirements teachers of older children have.
“We give our teachers license to really get in and study the things the kids are interested in,” Dube said. “In preschool, we have that leeway there.”
Instead of focusing on a set curriculum, the CDC makes it a goal to give students the tools to be lifelong learners. That means thinking creatively even during functional tasks, she said.
“For example, we give them a task like passing out snacks to their friends, and ask them to figure out how many plates they need on their own,” Dube said. “Those problem solving skills, where they learn to think, ‘I can figure this out,’ — that is what we want.
“When you’re learning math, you may not feel like you are being creative, but kids are very creative when they have problem solving skills,” Dube said. “They will use those skills later to try to figure out algebra, and we hope they will be more persistent because they learned those skills early on.”
Once in elementary, junior high and high school, students have to meet curriculum standards, but that doesn’t have to mean they are less creative. In fact, in fostering a spirit of acceptance, students can remain creative in otherwise structured environments.
“I think sometimes young people lose their creative spark as they get older because they are afraid of standing out as being different, or they are afraid to try something and fail,” Holder said.
“We can help with this by reminding young people that we appreciate their unique talents and attributes.”
Trial and error is an important part of learning, she added. Failures can lead to great things, and modeling this attitude by admitting that we, as adults, make mistakes, can send a really powerful message to young people.
“When kids know that it’s OK to make mistakes and that their unique attributes and talents are appreciated, this helps them feel confident enough to take risks and try new things with their learning,” Holder said.
Holder gives her students time to practice, experiment and play with materials before delving into a project, she said. Much like Dube’s preschoolers, Holder said her students often surprise her with their creative exploration.
“Almost every time, my students come up with new, creative, techniques that I wouldn’t have thought of myself,” she said.
There’s a balance between structure and freedom in her classroom.
“I find that giving students some criteria and sources of inspiration before beginning a project actually helps them work more creatively,” she said. “If I leave a project too open, students can get overwhelmed with figuring out how to even get started.”
This is where looking at the work of other artists might come in handy, so students have a clear goal in mind.
“I also strive to make sure that students have plenty of opportunities to put their own mark on a project, so with every project we do, they have room to make their own choices,” Holder said.
This may mean that students choose the subject of their art, the materials or techniques they will use. And it is in an array of student work that Holder sees whether she has met her teaching goals.
“When I look at my students’ work after finishing a project, if I see that all of their projects look pretty different from one another, I take this as a sign that I’ve given them plenty of room to be creative and make their own choices with their art,” Holder said.
“On the other hand, if we finish a project and they all look really similar, this tells me that I probably didn’t give them enough creative freedom, and it’s something I need to work on for next time.”
Learning confidence and problem solving is crucial for a child of any age, and creativity fosters those traits.
“One of the things I love about teaching a subject in the arts is that through their work, young artists are naturally engaging in complex thought processes such as creative thinking, problem solving, planning, revising, innovating, practicing self-directed learning and communicating important ideas,” Holder said.
And she believes it’s important to make students aware of these thought processes to help them practice them purposefully.
“This makes it more likely that they will improve in their practice, and transfer them to other areas of their lives,” she said.