Killing or Fostering Creativity in Children

We have choices in how we raise and teach our children – to kill creativity or foster it.      ©Leslie Owen Wilson

“If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.”  Jean Piaget 

“The most powerful way to develop creativity in your students is to be a role model.  Children develop creativity not when you tell them to, but when you show them.”  Robert J. Sternberg in How to develop student creativity (Also See Sternberg’s article Teach Creativity not Memorization)

How we discourage creativity in children – Leslie’s comments:

It is perhaps ironic that within our culture we insist that we place such value on creativity and then blatantly try to steal it away from children. In the contexts of our school and home environments there are often so many rules that they smoother budding creative spirits. As a culture we need to finally decide what we really want for our children and then carefully design and monitor experiences which provide those things we value. Here Hennessy and Amabile (1992) identify what they call the common “creativity killers.” It is important to note that all of these “killers” are commonplace in both our schools and homes.

  • Surveillance – Hovering over kids, making them feel that they’re constantly being watched while they are working, . . . under constant observation, the risk-taking, creative urge goes underground and hides . . .
  • Evaluation – When we constantly make kids worry about how they are doing, they ignore satisfaction with their accomplishments. . . .
  • Rewards – The excessive use of prizes . . . deprives a child of the intrinsic pleasure of creative activity.
  • Competition – Putting kids in a win-lose situation, where only one person can come out on top, . . . negates the process children progress at their own rates.
  • Over-control – Constantly telling kid how to do things, . . . often leaves children feeling like their originality is a mistake and any exploration a waste of time.
  • Restricting choice – Telling children which activities they should engage in instead of letting them follow where their curiosity and passion lead . . . again restricts active exploration and experimentation that might lead to creative discovery and production.
  • Pressure – Establishing grandiose expectations for a child’s performance . . . often ends up instilling aversion for a subject or activity. . . .Unreasonably high expectations often pressure children to perform and conform within strictly prescribed guidelines, and, again, deter experimentation, exploration, and innovation. Grandiose expectations are often beyond children’s developmental capabilities.

Summarized from: Goleman, Kaufman and Ray (1992) The creative spirit, 61-62

If intrinsic motivation is one key to a child’s creativity, the crucial element in cultivating it is time: open-ended time for the child to savor and explore a particular activity or material to make it her own. Perhaps one of the greatest crimes adults commit against a child’s creativity is robbing the child of such time.” Goleman, Kaufman and Ray (1992) The creative spirit, 63

Think about it: kid with sunglasses

Children’s lives, just like those of adults, should be compartmentalized. And yes, children need to be taught to regulate their behavior according to the situation and resulting social needs. But there should be some sense of balance between the times when children have time for creative exploration, experimentation, and innovation, and the times where choices are restricted, where direct instruction is given, and where children are required to obey rules and conform to social norms. Unfortunately, what really happens is that there is usually a lack of balance and life becomes an all or nothing proposition. As a result, many children go through childhood learning only about competition, rules, control, and conformity, and little about the joy of exploration, innovation, and discovery as these elements pertain to acts of creation.

One of the things that research reveals (Piirto) on the upbringing of highly creative individuals, is that these people usually came from homes that had only a few, important, sacred rules. The few rules that did exist usually had to do with how people were treated.

After reading the list of “creativity killers” above, please examine your own practices as either a teacher or a parent and see how many “killers” are regularly part of your teaching or parenting. Then see if you can alter your practices so that your children or students have opportunities to develop their senses of creativity more fully. In other words, try to limit or eradicate your own array of ” creativity killers.”.

There are many potent stories about trying to regulate and contain creativity in children. Here are a few to explore:

  • Harry Chapin’s poignant song Flowers are red
  • Children’s author Tomie de Paola’s book The art lesson
  • Helen E. Buckley’s classic poem The Little Boy appears on many sites.It is about a little boy genuinely excited to go to school. However what he finds there is conformity and that he is to sit and wait until the teacher tells him  what to do. Depressingly, in the end he can no longer think or create for himself, but he is very good at sitting and waiting to be told what to do. See if you can find this allegory. It is a potent lesson about the power of teachers. Here is one link to the story – the Little Boy Version 1
  • All of these examples speak of similar tales telling about how teachers, concerned more with obedience and conformity, steal children’s creative spirits.

In a very crowded world, civility and appropriate social behavior are important skills in a society that values interpersonal, collaborative, and cooperative skills. But as caring adults and role models we need to find a balance between perpetuating the need for obedience and social order, and helping maintain school and home atmospheres that foster times for creative activities and imaginative play. Creative exploration often has no definitive end product or final destination — sometimes it is about the journey and what is learned along the way. And please remember daydreaming is not wasting time! Often it is the brain looking for an escape from boredom, or the “little gray cells ” of the human brain looking for solutions. (I even wrote a poem about its importance – The Swirls.)

On the importance of persistence and reflection in fostering creativity 

We are part of a hyperturbulent, fast-paced, disposable culture — break-down furniture, break-up marriages, cross-country migrations, sound bites, video clips, fast food, eat-and-run types of living. The breakneck speed of these interactions leads to an incessant, pervasive need for instant gratification. In this state our cultural milieu does not readily lend itself to either fostering reflective analysis, or to the natural development of tenacity in our children. And yet we know from numerous investigations into the lives of creative individuals that reflective action is necessary for the incubation periods so crucial to true creative production. We also know that persistence and tenacity are essential elements that distinguish highly creative people from people who just have good or unusual ideas.

In order to be recognized, the processes which form creative thoughts and behaviors demand that unique ideas find inviting homes. Ideas must seek development, production, and refinement before they reach fruition and manifestation. They have to be incubated and developed properly for others to see their beauty or their worth. This process takes time and energy and tenacity as creators become consumed with the tasks of taking ideas and making them visible, audible, doable, or usable.

Therefore, if we say that we value creativity and its many processes and products, we must ultimately be willing to teach the art of reflective behavior and foster persistence in our young. However, developing these attributes in children takes the gift of time, and our children must be given that gift if they are ever to become truly creative.

Children need time to discover, to explore, to experiment, to learn from mistakes, to adjust and realign their ideas. They also need allocated time to play with ideas, to make corrections, time to dream, and to wonder “what if?” These are lifetime skills far beyond the measurement of common academic standards, and well into and beyond our tomorrows.

We must decide if creativity is really important to the maintenance and continuum of our culture. If our answer is “yes” then we must be willing to allocate the time necessary for the true development of creative spirits in our young people. And we must be sure to teach our children the art of reflective and persistent behavior and to allocate enough time for those attributes to grow and flourish. (*Read more on the importance of persistence to creativity.)


Amabile, T.M., & Hennessey, B.A. (1992). The motivation for creativity in children. In T. Pittman & A. Boggiano (Eds.), Achievement and motivation: A social developmental perspective (pp. 54-74). New York: Cambridge University Press

Hennessey, Beth A., and T. M. Amabile. (1987) Creativity and Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1987.

Goleman D., Kaufman P., and Ray M. (1992) The creative spirit. New York: Penguin.

Piirto, J. (1992) Understanding those who create, 1st ed. Dayton, Ohio. Ohio Psychology Press.


*****Five Star Winners! Help kids understand creativity!

Some extraordinary kids’ picture books on exploring and finding creativity, and on creative ways to solve problems. Check out some of these sample titles:

Andrea Beaty and David Roberts –

Karen Beaumont – Shoe-la-la

Ben Clanton – Something extraordinary

Drew Daywalt – The day the crayons quit

Paul Fleischman –Westlandia

Jim La Marche – The Raft

Patrick McDonnell – Art

Alice McLerran – Roxaboxen

Paul and Peter Reynolds – Going places


Peter Reynolds –

Barnie Saltzberg – Beautiful Oops!

Ashley Spires – The most magnificent thing

David Wiesner –

Kobe Yamada – What Do You Do With
an Idea?

David Santat – The Adventures of Beekle – The Unimaginary Friend  – Caldecott Winner


Original materials on this site are copyrighted to Leslie Owen Wilson – e-mail