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Generally, creativity is the ability to think in unusual ways. It is a type of rational thought called divergent thinking. As the name suggests, a divergent thinker branches off (diverges) from a linear thought, offering multiple solutions or answers to a problem.

For instance, how many uses can one think of for a paper-clip? Most people come up with 10 or 15; highly creative types come up with almost 200 ways.

The four pillars of divergent thinking

There are four components of divergent thinking. A highly creative person has strong capacities in each of these four areas:

  • Fluency: the ability to produce many ideas.
  • Originality: the uniqueness of ideas. Originality is vital for creativity. All creative things, ideas, and solutions must be original.
  • Flexibility: producing ideas that come from different categories of thought. For instance, when asked to brainstorm about “strong things,” one person might think of different types of superheroes. Superheroes are one category of thought. Another person may conjure ideas of “strong things” from multiple groups of thought: super glue, bad smells, and gravity, for instance. When a person taps into different categories of thought, they are more flexible in their thinking.
  • Elaboration: the continual exploration of a line of thought. Elaboration is when creative people often say they are “on fire” about a particular topic or project – they are unable to focus or think of nothing else.

Creativity: little-c versus big-C

Researchers describe two levels of creativity:

  • “Little-c” creativity is more regular, everyday creativity, such as solving a puzzle on your own or coming up with unusual word associations.
  • A person with "big-C" creativity develops ideas that lead to major revolutionary changes, such as those demonstrated by the likes of Darwin, Picasso, or Stravinsky.

It is important to recognize that creativity is not a general trait. The same person can be creative in one area (for instance, math) but not be creative in others (such as music).

Is there a biology of creativity?

The neurotransmitter involved in controlling the brain’s pleasure and reward centres, dopamine, may be linked to abilities in divergent thinking. Yet, none of this suggests that creative talents are innate. There is no single "creativity gene." In fact, it is widely accepted that genetic inheritance of creativity is malleable. What we inherit is potential, which is a range of possibilities. Although some children may be born with a stronger tendency for creativity compared to others, every person has room for growth.

Why is creativity important in children?

Creativity fuels the ability to problem-solve, innovate, and explore new and unfamiliar areas. It is the hallmark of ingenuity, which leads to successes in the world of art, science, and technology. Children who are encouraged to think creatively exhibit higher self-esteem and motivation.

Creative thinking decrease as children age

Over the past few decades, studies show children’s creativity tends to decrease with age – a decline most significant from kindergarten to third grade. One major reason is the increased use of standardized tests, which foster conventional thinking skills that focus on one linear idea or correct solution (convergent thinking). As a consequence, there is less tolerance of divergent thinking skills in the classroom. Emphasis on conventional skills continues throughout each successive grade. It often continues to define the type of thinking needed during exams in colleges and universities.

How to nurture creativity in your child

Value creativity at home

Not surprisingly, a child values what a parent values. Homes that appreciate conventional success more than self-expression hinder creativity. Parents must first see creativity as valuable. These can be reflected in the choices you make. Hang art on the walls, attend plays, read fiction, and watch innovative shows on TV. Children pick up on the values of the family.

Another way to value creativity is to model it. Everyday creativity can be as simple as rearranging furniture or having new ideas for dinner or vacations. Make creativity accessible for your child: if your child enjoys drawing, leave art supplies around. By modeling new ideas and perspectives, children learn how to think and behave creatively.

Encourage self-expression and autonomy

Give your kids opportunities to be self-expressive, autonomous, and original.

  • Let them generate their own ideas and explanations for things. This helps nurture self-expression, which is a key part of learning to take more intellectual risks.
  • Simple activities indoors and outdoors can help too. For instance, let children explore what the naked eye can’t see by using a magnifying glass throughout the home.
  • Promote unstructured playtime outdoors. Studies show exposure to nature boosts creativity and exploration.

Reward creative behaviour

Reward creative behaviour and original self-expression in your child. Rewards do not have to be material. Instead, use reward as an opportunity to bond with your child. For instance, spend 15 or 20 minutes reading their favourite book to them, or playing together with their favourite toy.

If you choose to reward your child with a small treat, do it within reason. When your child is intrinsically motivated to be creative, rewards can be a distraction. They can cause a child to easily forget they were doing something because they enjoyed it.

Encourage mistakes and be playful

Remind your child it is OK to make mistakes. Encourage them to explore, play around, and make those mistakes. This fosters the love of discovery.

Key points

  • Creativity is a type of rational thought called divergent thinking. A divergent thinker branches off from a linear thought, offering multiple solutions or answers to a problem.
  • The same person can be creative in one area (for instance, math) but not be creative in others (such as music).
  • Creativity fuels the ability to problem-solve, innovate, and explore new and unfamiliar areas.
  • Parent can nurture creativity in a child by valuing it at home, encouraging self-expression, and rewarding creative behaviour.
  • Encouraging mistakes teaches a child to be playful and enjoy the process of discovery. 

​​​Nira Datta

Medical Writer/Editor