MIT MEDIA LAB
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MIT MEDIA LAB

Cultivating Creativity during the Coronavirus Crisis

The coronavirus crisis highlights the growing need for creativity in today’s society. We need the creativity of public-health professionals to develop strategies for limiting the spread of the virus. We need the creativity of doctors and scientists to develop a vaccine. We need the creativity of educators and parents to provide learning opportunities for children while schools are closed.

Situations like the coronavirus pandemic will be rare. But the need to deal with unexpected challenges is becoming more and more common. It is becoming the new normal. In today’s fast-changing world, people are confronted with a never-ending stream of unknown, unexpected, and unpredictable situations. The ability to think and act creatively is now more important than ever before.

Unfortunately, many schools and homes do not place a high priority on helping children develop as creative thinkers. There’s a common misconception that the best way to encourage children’s creativity is simply to get out of the way and let them be creative. Although it’s certainly true that children are naturally curious and inquisitive, they need support to develop their creative capacities and reach their full creative potential.

In our research in the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, we have identified four guiding principles for cultivating creativity: Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. That is, we need to provide children with opportunities to work on projects, based on their passions, in collaboration with peers, in a playful spirit.

These Four P’s of Creative Learning can provide a good framework if you’re looking for ways to support children’s learning while they’re away from school during the coronavirus crisis:

Projects. Children can use everyday materials for many types of projects. With paper, they can write stories, draw pictures, and create origami sculptures. With more types of materials, they can work on a broader array of projects. LEGO bricks and popsicle sticks are good for making structures, felt and fabric are good for decorating, pens and markers are good for drawing, glue guns and duct tape are good for holding things together, and software tools like Scratch are good for making animated stories and games.

Passion. When children work on projects they care about, they are willing to work longer and harder, and persist in the face of difficulties and challenges. They are also more likely to make connections with the ideas underlying their projects. Encourage children to follow their interests, whether it’s making a piece of jewelry or building a soapbox race car or baking a cake or writing a poem. What’s most important is providing children with opportunities to create things they care about, with and for people they care about.

Peers. Creativity is a social process. We’re most creative when we’re working with others, learning from others. Of course, there can be challenges when children need to remain at home. But this can be an opportunity to create and learn together as a family, with parents and siblings. Ricarose Roque and her colleagues have developed a wonderful set of materials to support Family Creative Learning. And for children who have access to the internet at home, there are online communities like Scratch and DIY where children can collaborate on projects and share ideas online.

Play. Not all types of play are created equal. Some types of play lead to creative learning experiences; others don’t. We need to ask: What types of play are most likely to help young people develop as creative thinkers? When I think about play, I don’t think about particular activities, but rather a way of engaging with the world: a willingness to experiment, to try new things, to take risks, to test the boundaries. So it’s important to create an environment where children feel comfortable to take risks and try new things. Encourage experimentation by honoring failed experiments as much as successful ones.

These four principles have guided my group’s development of the Scratch programming language and online community, available for free at scratch.mit.edu. With Scratch, children can create interactive stories, games, and animations, based on their own interests, and then share their projects with peers in an online community. In the process, children learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively — essential skills for everyone in today’s society.

Project by a member of the Scratch online community

The Scratch Team offers a variety of free resources that can be useful for children, parents, and educators. The Ideas page on the Scratch website provides tutorials to help children get started with Scratch, along with educator guides that suggest strategies for supporting the learning process.

With so many schools now closed due to the coronavirus crisis, the Scratch Team recently launched a #ScratchAtHome initiative, providing children, parents, and educators with ideas for engaging in creative learning activities at home. The initiative includes Scratch tutorials, collaborative activities, and Create-Along live-streaming events.

Scratch is designed for ages 8 and up. There is a separate version of Scratch, called ScratchJr, for children ages 5–7, available for free for iPads and Android tablets. Free resources are available on the ScratchJr website.

In most years, there is a network of Scratch events around the world on the second Saturday of May, called Scratch Day. Last year, there were more than 1500 in-person Scratch Day events. But this year, to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we’re discouraging in-person events. Instead, we’ll be organizing Scratch Month: offering extra online activities (including Scratch Design Studios) throughout the month of May.

The coronavirus crisis presents many challenges, but also some opportunities. By providing children with tools, materials, and opportunities for designing, creating, and experimenting, you’ll be helping them prepare for life in a society where creative thinking is important than ever before.

[Updated: March 27, 2020]

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Mitchel Resnick

Mitchel Resnick

Professor of Learning Research at MIT Media Lab, director of Lifelong Kindergarten research group, and founder of the Scratch project (http://scratch.mit.edu)