Encouraging creativity in kids, plus broccoli-eating crocodiles

In the last five or so years it seems there's been a rush of books, public talks and courses promoting creativity and how we can encourage more of it in our lives. Crafting, woodworking, drawing, writing, cooking, dancing and yes, blogging, are just a few ways many of us tap into our creative flow, decrease stress and even see the world around us with new eyes. Most of us cherish the time we spend doing the creative thing that makes our heart sing.

But what about encouraging creativity in kids? Growing international research showing that fostering creative thinking in kids can improve their overall learning, confidence and ability to problem solve flexibly.

All good things right? Yet, the current focus in this country on high stakes testing and ranking systems in schools can turn the focus away from creative and arts based subjects. This can leave children with less space to explore their creative selves, at critical developmental stages in their lives.

Since becoming a mum to two small boys I've given this a fair amount of thought. I think communities and schools do a pretty good job of encouraging sport, physical activities, and syllabus-based learning. All important stuff. 

But outside of school or community-based art, music, or other creatively driven classes, how do we encourage imaginative thinking and creative confidence in our kids? In particular, how do we encourage this among all children, regardless of location, socio-economic, cultural or linguistic backgrounds?

For some years now I've been involved as a volunteer creative writing tutor at the Sydney Story Factory. SSF is a not-for-profit creative writing centre for young people in Redfern, Sydney. It's programs target marginalised young people, and those from Indigenous and non-English speaking backgrounds, but are open to all kids of upper primary and high school age.

SSF runs workshops and term-length creative writing programs where tutors work one-on-one with kids to write and produce a story, poem or piece of creative work. By the end of class the stories are printed, bound, and each child walks away with a published piece of work.

Being a tutor has been one of the most rewarding experiences I've had in recent years. I've helped kids struggling with dyslexia, reading, and communicating in English, to produce their own short story or creative piece. Over the course of a program young people have blossomed, gained confidence in their writing and communication skills, interacted with others more easily, and written some truly funny, insightful and captivating stories.

I've learned so much from these kids. About facing fear, adversity and doubt head on. About taking the plunge into imaginary worlds where these things fade away. About perseverance, and the joy to be found in the act of creating, rather than 'winning' a place. Most of all, about the importance of fostering imagination and valuing creativity in the lives of our kids - just as much as maths, science, reading and sport.

Sydney Story Factory was inspired by 826 Valencia, a writing centre for young people founded by novelist Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Caligari in San Francisco in 2002. For a wonderful talk by Dave Eggers explaining the principles of 826 Valencia and how it helps develop confidence, creativity and imagination in kids, have a listen here.

For a brilliant discussion about how schools might be undermining, rather than supporting creativity, have a listen to Sir Ken Robinson's entertaining and moving TED talk, here.

For more information about Sydney Story Factory, including how you can support its work, visit them here.

One of the things I love about SSF is its commitment to independent and long-term evaluation of the benefits of its program for young people. SSF has partnered with academics from the University of Sydney, who are tracking the impact of SSF in five key areas: writing and communication skills; self-confidence and self-efficacy; creativity; empathy; and motivation to write and learn.

Preliminary results show that students involved in workshops are demonstrating significant development in creative writing and literacy skills, and are more aware of the benefits of collaboration, organisation, expressing ideas and persevering with a task. Critical life-long skills indeed - whatever life, work and dreams these kids choose to pursue.

Perhaps this is what I find so rewarding about being involved. Seeing kids dream, write, and create big. Dream so big that with help, they start to climb over whatever barriers might be holding them back. Isn't that worth nourishing and supporting in our kids?

All tutors are trained by SSF and I've also taken away some really practical tips about encouraging creativity in kids, everyday.
  • Read often and widely to kids 
  • Ask kids questions as you read a book - 'what do you think happens on the next page? What do you think the penguin does next?' etc.
  • If the kid wants to read the book back the front, upside down, or sideways - let them!
  • Dress up with you kids and play, draw, write, create and have fun with them! Get involved in their imaginative world.
  • Take them on adventures - down the road, to a museum, on the bus or train. Talk about what they are seeing and encourage them to think and talk about what and why things might be happening.
These all sound super simple, but often I get stuck in the busy pace of life, and forget how awesome imagination is, and how it can transform our world.

Lately at our place we've been reading lots of animal books and watching some kid's wildlife documentaries. We live in the country and yesterday was for me, a typical drive home, past cows in a paddock. Yet for my toddler, we were charging on the African plains through a herd of wildebeest, and he was yelling in excitement, looking out for lions and cheetahs the whole way home. 

Together we've spotted blue whales in the bath, a leopard behind the couch and a crocodile under the kitchen table who happened to love chomping on broccoli (it vanished from my toddler's plate and appeared under the table, for crocodile to eat).  

I'm looking forward to seeing how imagination transforms our world tomorrow!

What worlds are being created at your place lately?  Do you have a favorite activity where you lose yourself in the creative 'flow'? Do crocodiles eat all the broccoli at your place too?

*above image via Sydney Story Factory: http://www.sydneystoryfactory.org.au


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