By Sally Madsen with Holly Kretschmar
Kids are creative, every moment of the day… in the way they draw, the way they experiment with language, the way they interact with objects, the way they imagine new worlds. At IDEO we believe that creative confidence — believing in your ability to create change and having the courage to act on it — is something all of us are born with.
But as David and Tom Kelley write in the book Creative Confidence, too often people lose this innate ability as they grow. Perhaps they get a “creativity scar” when somebody tells them they aren’t a good artist or they’re doing things the wrong way. They become fearful of what other people think. They play it safe. And the safe answer is rarely the most creative or innovative one.
Designer and parent Holly Kretschmar shared a moment when her son lost his confidence: “When my son was 5, he played in his first piano recital. He sat at the teacher’s grand piano with his little feet dangling off the bench and played a short piece that he composed, called ‘Walking in the Woods,’ based on an imaginary game that he had invented. Afterwards, he bowed and we clapped wildly, so proud of him for being the youngest kid to perform, and the only one who had played an original composition. But after this experience, he completely avoided playing the piano at home. Before the recital, he had loved messing around, using the piano to ‘play’ in the best sense of the word. But after the recital, it was like pulling teeth to get him to play a single note. At last, in a quiet, cuddly moment, he admitted that the recital had made him feel nervous and pressured. As far as I could tell, it had sucked the fun out of his tinkering and forced him to focus on his audience, not the pleasure of playing. It has taken a year to get him back to a place where he enjoys playing again, a process that included switching to a new teacher (who doesn’t require recitals), playing myself (very badly!), and holding back on comments unless he asks.”
David Kelley points to a moment in childhood development where kids start to judge themselves and feel judged. No longer dancing like nobody’s watching, they start to pay attention to the reactions around them. This is when their creativity is most vulnerable. This makes us wonder:
How can we prevent kids’ creativity from being blocked? And how can we help kids strengthen their creative muscles?
By “we,” I mean the adults — parents, educators, caretakers. All of us play a defining role in whether kids see themselves as creative.
While it may come more naturally to some, absolutely everyone can build their creativity. And if we want to empower the next generation to change the world, helping them build their creative confidence is critical.
I collected inspiration from a group that’s both obsessed with creativity and thoughtful about child development — IDEO parents. Two key approaches emerged: climb into the back seat to let kids’ innate creativity shine, and help kids build their creative muscles through practice. The following examples come from a parenting perspective, but the underlying principles are just as relevant in a school context.
Approach A. Climb into the back seat
If you haven’t seen Sugata Mitra’s experiments with ‘hole in the wall’ computers in India, you must. Totally unsupervised, kids in rural areas teach themselves how to use a computer: they explore, they play, they even figure out how DNA replicates — with no computer savvy or English skills, just curiosity and openness. Sugata highlights kids’ ability to learn in self-organized groups. And I think there’s something really intriguing there. Are these kids successful because there are no adults to get in the way? Nobody to tell them it’s beyond their abilities? Nobody to manage their learning? Left to their own devices, kids can’t help being creative.
But it is so easy for adults to take over, to answer the tough questions, to fill the day with activities.
If we wish for kids to be creatively independent, to have a sense of autonomy, then they shouldn’t get in the habit of constantly looking to adults for guidance.
What happens when we really let go? How can we help kids explore on their own, without an adult agenda?
Some things to try:
Give kids the gift of unstructured time. As one colleague put it, “I think boredom is the root of all creativity.” Unstructured time means letting go of control: “When my kids say, ‘I’m bored!’ I try to say, ‘Oooh, I love when you’re bored because you always figure out the coolest things to do. I can’t wait to see what you do next!’ I want my kids to value empty time so that they can look within themselves — instead of to the nearest adult — for ideas about what to do next.”
Hold back on extrinsic rewards. There is a growing body of research showing that when extrinsic rewards (including praise) are used, internal motivation goes away. Holly described a study by Deci and Ryan on how motivation in the arts was affected by rewards. “The researchers discovered that when children were told they’d be given awards for drawing the best pictures, they spent less free-choice time drawing than the kids in the no-rewards, control group. Awards, or even just praise, can replace the intrinsic pleasure that comes from the activity itself. This really stuck with me, and I try to remember it when my kids are doing art, sports, music, or other creative play. Getting out of the way, and refraining from offering extrinsic rewards (whether it’s toys, stars, praise, or the worst — food), helps kids stay in touch with the innate pleasure that comes from creative pursuits.”
Approach B. Building creative muscles
What blocks creativity? Fear of failure, or fear of being judged. On the flip side, willingness to experiment and take risks opens the door for new ideas and expression to emerge. As the author Elizabeth Gilbert has said, “Being able to take risk is being able to be creative.”
Risks don’t have to be high-stakes. On the contrary, we can help kids enjoy everyday moments of experimentation and exploration. When things don’t go as hoped — the weight of the last block topples the tower, the added cup of blueberries makes the muffins too wet, the energetic scribbling rips the drawing paper — it’s not a catastrophe but simply part of the learning and play. The creative project has evolved in unexpected ways. Try again. It’s fun! And this experience leads to confidence.
The foundation for risk-taking is a sense of security — not just in creative pursuits, but in life. Feeling supported and loved is the starting point that kids can venture from.
How can we support low-stakes moments of creative risk-taking? How can we help kids build experience in the skills and mindsets of creativity — such as visual expression, building, questioning, experimenting?
Here are some favorite IDEO-parent approaches:
Make stuff. (And adults, embrace the mess that comes with it!)
- Create a place where kids can make stuff and not have to clean up every time. “We moved about a year ago, and we are incredibly lucky to have a room for messy projects. Once I heard my 4-year-old giving a tour of our house and I heard him say, ‘This is the room where we can do whatever we want!’ I was so proud to hear him say this — I got the sense that he truly felt a sense of freedom and autonomy. I try to stock it with random materials, bits and bobs, things that would otherwise get thrown away or things we find on walks, plus art supplies and tools, as well as some artwork that inspires me, and my kids know they have free rein to use whatever they want.”
- Painting! “Huge paper on driveway. Tape paper underneath the table so they can paint up. Paint the glass back door. Paint your bodies. Paint in the bathtub (shaving cream mixed with paint.) Paint pumpkins, rocks, grass, leaves etc. As a parent, find ways to value the creation and experimentation over the mess.” Or if the mess just isn’t your style, sign them up for a painting class somewhere else!
- Ask your kid to describe their creation in their own words. Write it down for them, so they have a story to go alongside what they made. (But if there’s no story, that’s okay. Creation may simply be a form of play or experimentation, rather than work towards an end result.)
- Build creative rituals. “We have a tradition of making holiday gifts for family members, we break out the sewing machine for Halloween costumes, and we like to make bookmarks as thank you cards, using whatever new process or material we’ve been playing around with.”
More open-ended, less right and wrong.
- Throw a set of Mardi Gras beads on the table and see how many different things you can see in the shape the beads make. “It’s a dog! It’s an angel!” Everyone sees things a little differently.
- Use a Pantone book (or a set of crayons) as a prop for open-ended storytelling. The names of the colors can be woven into the narrative.
- Play exquisite corpse, a game where everyone takes turns adding a word or image to the story.
- Before you jump to answer a kid’s question, bounce it back to them: “What do you think?” Encouraging kids to imagine possibilities stokes their independence and curiosity.
- Consider not buying any more toys, or editing the ones you have. As one colleague reflected, “My parents were both artists, and I feel like limited resources helped foster creativity. My siblings and I destroyed and built so many great things.” From another, “I find that around the holidays and birthdays — when our toy cabinet is overflowing with gifts — my kids are at their least creative. I am constantly culling the stuff that they play with so that they can have a deep and creative relationship with a few, select things. We’ve all experienced the paralysis of choice — I think it affects kids profoundly and that part of the job of a parent (who wants to foster creativity) is to eliminate the noise. Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne is a great book and has lots to say about this topic.”
Encourage invention and experimentation in play.
- Find the toys that capture your kids’ imagination. As one parent described, “HOURS get sucked into crazy adventures with the Hulkster and Thor. My kids make up wild fantasy universes, create and destroy alliances, build props strictly for destruction, etc… it’s awesome!” For other families it’s plastic animals — see what moves your kids.
- Provide kids with materials that can be combined in many ways. “My 5-year-old is fascinated with the way things are put together. We ordered him a set of industrial strength mini-magnets and then let him combine them with nuts and bolts from our tool box. He spends hours building robots and ships by combining the hardware with the magnets. What I love is that the materials are so simple, re-configurable, cheap and non-commercial. This applies to magnets and bolts, but also to tree trunk slices, LEGOs, beads, etc.” Or another, drippier, variation: “I keep a large plastic bin of miscellaneous solids and liquids that my kids can combine. Often their experiments have random spices, dried pasta, bits of ribbon and food coloring mixed into a sludge. Sometimes we mix our potions in the bathtub or in a kiddie pool (in the living room or outside if the weather is good) to minimize cleanup. They make a huge mess! But they take tremendous pride in their potions.”
Talk about creativity.
- Replace generic praise with specific observations and encouragement about the process. Rather than “That’s so beautiful,” try “The shape of the wing makes the bird seem strong,” or, “You worked so hard on that, you used up almost the whole purple crayon.”
- Model creativity within the family. Draw, play music, cook, fix things, write. You don’t have to be a pro!
- Be optimistic in your language. “I often hear parents say ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I can’t sing’ in front of their kids, which makes me cringe. It’s important to play and take risks and mess around without defining ourselves as un-creative, which then gives our kids the idea that they might not be creative in certain areas. So, maybe we’re not confident in the kitchen, or with a paintbrush, but it’s important to ask, ‘I wonder what would happen if I…?’”
- Point out to kids when other adults (including teachers) are quashing creativity and give license to ignore it or transcend it.
This challenge — how to sustain kids’ innate creativity as they grow — is important for us all to keep exploring! We’d love to hear what you think:
What are your favorite activities for encouraging exploration and fostering creative play?
What words do you use to help build the creative mindset?
How can these approaches and mindsets be built into the K12 school experience?
Big thanks to collaborators David Kelley and Holly Kretschmar.
Thank you also to IDEO designers/alums Erin Carrero, Caricia Catalani, Ame Elliott, Michelle Lee, Peter Macdonald, Ali McLaren, Jess Munro, Elger Oberwelz, Shayna Proctor, Kristian Simsarian, and Sandy Speicher for their contributions.
A few great resources on the topic:
- Creative Confidence by David and Tom Kelley. On unleashing creative potential for adults and kids alike.
- Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” by Alfie Kohn. The impacts of praise, and alternative approaches.
- Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner. “What parents, teachers, and employers must do to develop the capacities of young people to become innovators.”
- OpenIDEO creative confidence challenge. Crowd-sourced solutions to the question, “How might we inspire young people to cultivate their creative confidence?”