How Do We Teach Creativity?

I first became intrigued with the question of how we teach people to be creative a number of years ago when completing an education project for a client.  They were wrestling with the question of how to teach creativity to their students, from primary school all the way up through university.  They knew that for the future of their economy, they needed to be graduating creative people in every professional field.  They just didn’t know how to do this.  They had tried various initiatives, some quite costly, but none of them were achieving the outcomes they were looking for.

Once I noticed this client wrestling with the creativity challenge, I started to notice more and more discussion of the same question, in schools, and in businesses. How do we teach people to be creative?

The question had never crossed my mind before this because I have always been creative. I have taken my creativity for granted.  But what did my parents do to create a creative kid?  Thinking back through my childhood, I started to see some answers.

We played a lot of games, and I mean a lot.  Card games, board games, active games on the street or in the pool with the neighbourhood kids, games we made up.

And we built things. We had what we called “the big cushions”, four large foam cushions, about six inches thick, three feet wide and four feet long. With these cushions and a pile of blankets we built forts from which to guard our imaginary kingdoms. When anything came in a large box, we built something out of it, either a house for ourselves or another fort.  Lego was our favourite toy.  We built houses, schools, entire towns, bridges, skyscrapers, boats and ships. 

We used shoe boxes and leftover wall paper to make doll houses.  We used match boxes, toilet rolls, and boxes from chocolates to make the furniture.  We made doll-sized blankets, towels, and curtains from scraps of fabric.  We designed and sewed doll clothes. 

We painted.  Finger painting.  String painting. Paint-by-numbers.  Ink painting. Acrylic painting.  Oil painting. Stain glass painting.

We tie-dyed our clothes.  We painted our t-shirts.  We did needle point and embroidery.  We knitted and crocheted.

We learned to bake and to cook, experimenting with ingredients along the way.

We made things with what was around us.  We used pressed leaves and flowers to make cards.  We glued stones and driftwood together to make imaginary creatures.  We glued pine cones together to make wreaths, trees and candle holders at Christmas. We melted wax and dyed and scented it to make candles.  We learned macramé, plaster casting, weaving, basket weaving, origami, and decoupage. We were always on the lookout for something new to make.

All of the above creativity-building activities took place at home, not at school.  You can see why home was  much more interesting than school for us.

We also had examples in our parents.  We never had a lot of money, and my parents were great at making things stretch.  My mum made our clothes, including winter jackets, hats, mitts, scarves, and fancy dresses.  She sewed.  She knitted.  She crocheted.  She made cushions and blankets. She braided scrap clothing into rugs. She designed a space-saving bed and desk unit for my sister and I, which my father then built, long before Ikea was on the scene. Not a single day went by when one parent or the other wasn’t making something. 

One answer, then, to the question of how to teach creativity, is to give our students endless opportunities to create.  Every single day. No matter the age.  Don’t give them a box of pre-determined pieces and instructions on how to put something together.  Give them ordinary, everyday things, some glue and some string, and let them go to it. 

And if we are teaching or training adults?  Do the same thing. Set them regular creative challenges and then step back and see what happens.

The second answer to the question of how to teach creativity, is to model creativity ourselves.  It is difficult to ask our students to be creative, when we are not practicing it ourselves.