- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

Paint and glue, crayons and markers, even scraps of cardboard and an old egg carton that look like everyday junk can become the tools for children's creativity.

Children can scribble, paste and pretend before they can articulate effectively and write, so it is important to give youngsters opportunities to express themselves in those ways, says Susan Striker, a Connecticut art teacher and author of the book "Young at Art: Teaching Toddlers Self-Expression, Problem-Solving Skills, and an Appreciation for Art."

"It is very crucial to give children opportunities for art in the early years," Ms. Striker says. "It sets for the child a pattern of thinking in creative ways, or not, in thinking, speaking and writing."

Though not every child will end up as another Pablo Picasso, any youngster might find the spark to be anything from a writer to an inventor to a chef if given open-ended opportunities to create, says Carolyn Callahan, a professor of education at the University of Virginia.

"I would say all children are creative on some continuum," says Ms. Callahan, associate director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. "All children are inquisitive, but some are more flexible to new ideas. Unfortunately, we don't know who the creators will be, so we need to encourage creativity in all kids."

In Jane Morrison's Alexandria home, that means letting daughter Eleanor, 6, "make a mess."

"We have paper and pencils all over," Mrs. Morrison says as she drops Eleanor at a weekly art class at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Old Town. "You can't be a neatnik and be creative. I have paint on the walls and markers on the floor. We also play dress-up and read stories. It all fosters the whole creative thing. Everything can't be math and reading."

Creativity generally is defined as productive thinking and looking at things in different ways, says Michael Michalko, author of the book "Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius."

"Creative people have different answers than the way we have been taught to think," Mr. Michalko says. "I like to quote Albert Einstein, who said the difference between your creative genius and the average person is the average person will look for a needle in a haystack, while the creative person will look for all the needles."

Mr. Michalko says all children have the natural instinct to be creative. That is why a refrigerator box can be a spaceship or a dish towel can be a bridal veil.

"If I ask any adult for uses for a brick, he or she can maybe give me eight or nine ideas," he says. "I asked my 10-year-old niece the same question a few months ago, and she is still coming up with suggestions.

"Part of the secret of creativity is quantity," he says. "If you study the 2,000 greatest thinkers, you'll see they all produced incredible numbers of ideas. Thomas Edison applied for more than 1,000 U.S. patents. The creative mind knows no such thing as failure. Edison failed about 9,000 times when he invented the light bulb. His assistant told him to give up. Edison said, 'But I've discovered 9,000 things that don't work.'"

The creative child is the one who thinks of alternative ways of expression, Ms. Callahan says.

"The creative child may play with words, make up new endings to stories, make up songs," she says. Ms. Callahan tells the story of a child who was drawing purple trees in her artwork. When someone criticized the painting, the child said, "You don't see what I do."

"Indeed, the adult went outside at dusk, and the trees did look purple," Ms. Callahan says.

The most creative thinkers might not be the best students, Mr. Michalko says.

"The educational system stresses fit, not outcome," he says. "By the time children graduate from school, they have learned how to be critical, negative thinkers. Throughout history, creative people have done poorly in school. Isaac Newton was a poor student. Beethoven was called stupid. Picasso was called emotionally unstable."

Creativity and schoolwork

Mr. Michalko's criticism of traditional education is valid in some cases, Ms. Callahan says.

"It really depends on the teacher," she says. "There is tremendous stress and pressure out there today in a high-stakes testing environment that really does hurt a child's opportunities to create."

With schools having to meet state standards through course work and testing, fewer opportunities for creativity exist, Ms. Callahan. says. However, a good teacher should be able to call on his or her own creativity by challenging children to ask questions.

"I do hear many more teachers say, 'I used to X within the context of what we were studying, but I can't do that anymore,'" she says. "I find that a shame."

Ms. Callahan says it is up to parents to fill the void with creative projects that play off of schoolwork. Make up a story about Paul Revere, for instance. Draw pictures of people during the time in history the child is studying.

"You can use the information, but at the same time, you can do more than write the answer on a test," she says. "You'll probably remember it better, too."

Some schools have teaching methods that are more creative than others. At Reggio Emilia schools and Waldorf schools, for instance, children learn by working with their hands and observing the world around them.

"The Waldorf philosophy is that a human being has more to him or her than just needing information," says Donald Bufano, chairman of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. Mr. Bufano also taught at Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda for more than 20 years.

Waldorf schools place a large emphasis on the arts and nature to encourage creativity.

"Not every child is going to be an artist," Mr. Bufano says, "but by having art, music and dance integrated into what they are doing, then they can be a scientist with a great appreciation for the arts."

Waldorf schools encourage activities such as mixing watercolors to see where new ideas can take a student, he says. Preschool classes also feature dolls without distinctly featured faces, so children can make up moods and feelings for them.

"Fixed ideas and images work against creativity," Mr. Bufano says. "Imagination is really something that needs to be self-created. Children need rich, vivid images. They need to tell stories, draw pictures and work with their hands and eyes."

Back to the drawing board

The secrets to nurturing creativity are time, room and materials, says Mr. Michalko, who agrees that the visual arts lay an important foundation for future expression and critical thinking.

He says parents should let children express themselves and should refrain from criticizing or making them stay in the lines.

"Zoologist Desmond Morris gave monkeys paint and canvas, and painting became the most important thing in their life," Mr. Michalko says, "but then they were rewarded with a banana. Their perception changed, and they did minimal work. It is the same with children. As soon as we reward or criticize, they suddenly interpret their work as something to do to get approval of adults or peers; then they spend their whole lives trying to get approval."

Ms. Striker agrees.

"Kids grow up hearing us say 'no' so much," she says. "By the time they get to school, they are afraid to think for themselves."

The art room, Ms. Striker says, is one place where they can hear "yes."

"Art gives children a language for self-expression," she says. "It lets all children be themselves."

Pascal Biancheri of Fort Washington says he provides his 6-year-old son, Nikolai, with as many opportunities as possible to create. That includes observing nature, building with Legos, drawing with crayons and playing with Play-Doh. Nikolai also participates in a children's art class.

"In my opinion, the more you let them express themselves, then they are free to experiment and triumph," Mr. Biancheri says.

In this era of video games, computers and toys that "do" things, art is one of the last forums for expression, says Christine Parson, an art instructor at the Torpedo Factory.

"As long as kids have the tools and the time, they can create," she says.

Assembling the tools to create does not have to be a big project.

"Big drawing pads and some markers are cheaper than most toys," Ms. Parson says. "They don't need batteries."

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