Dr. Melissa Varley works as a Superintendent of Schools, known for her inclusivity and realignment policies, as well as her work with Special Education students. In the following article, Melissa Varley discusses how to foster creativity within early education (and beyond).
Far beyond its role in turning boxes into rockets and kitchenware into magic wands, the natural curiosity of a child’s mind is part of what makes the early years a critical period for learning and development. How can classroom education harness, and not hinder, creative growth?
To foster creativity and channel it toward helping children improve their communication, problem-solving, and innovation skills, educators and parents should work to expose children to diverse experiences and interactions, encourage their self-expression, and tap into their own creativity to teach through hands-on activities whenever possible.
Dr. Melissa Varley explains that there’s a time and place for playing pretend and a time and place for learning more “academic” lessons, but creativity shouldn’t stop at the classroom door. Here are some tips on how and why to infuse creativity into education, especially during the early years.
Creative Exploration of the World
While it can be tiring to answer “Why?” questions about everything from bedtime to weather patterns, exploration and curiosity are important learning tools. Children don’t come pre-programmed with knowledge about the world, but the desire to discover is a natural gift, and a child’s questioning should be encouraged to help them understand the world around them.
Melissa Varley says that by exposing children to new environments, including libraries, museums, and nature, teachers and caregivers can help to expand the pool of potential questions in a child’s mind. Exploration should be encouraged, and games like hide and seek, treasure hunts, and “I spy” can be great tools to help open their minds to the world around them.
Seeing new things and visiting new places can also help children to discover more about themselves, such as their likes, dislikes, talents, and areas of particular interest. In turn, these personal insights can help children to direct their attention toward hobbies and activities that may later teach them skills such as commitment and time-management.
The Role of Storytelling
Dr. Melissa Varley says that for children and adults alike, stories are one of the clearest and most enduring expressions of creative thinking. Throughout human history, stories have been used for everything from record-keeping to cultural preservation to moral guidance to entertainment, and far beyond.
By telling stories, educators and caregivers can expand children’s vocabulary and understanding of how to interact with the people and the world around them. Encouraging children to tell their own stories, whether by recounting a personal experience or inventing a fantasy plot, can also help them understand chronological sequences and express themselves.
Other fun ways to bring stories to life are through puppet shows, charades, and roleplays, which can help children to form new neural connections by bringing the stories to life visually. Incorporating active movement may also help educators to capture the interest and attention of children who have trouble focusing or listening.
Melissa Varley notes that in the process of learning to read, children who have grown up listening to, enacting, and creating stories are likely to be more excited about learning and being able to finally unlock the stories trapped within the pages of a book by themselves.
The Benefits of Play
Dr. Melissa Varley says that even outside the context of roleplaying plotlines, physical movement is an important channel for children’s creative expression, as well as their personal, social, and intellectual development. For example, playing with toys or on playground structures can improve children’s manual dexterity while also encouraging them to think outside the box and problem-solve.
Socially, play can also teach kids the importance of sharing, consequences, and being mindful of others’ feelings. Even the more complex emotions, such as empathy, and virtues, such as patience, can also begin to develop in early childhood.
How to Build a Creative Environment
Dr. Melissa Varley says that as an agent of social, intellectual, and personal childhood development, creativity should be encouraged and celebrated both inside and outside the classroom. Just as adults being trained to do a new job or learn a new skill often learn most efficiently by doing, many children thrive when given the opportunity to learn through hands-on participation.
When working with a group of children, it’s important to approach learning material from several different angles in order to reach students with different learning styles. While some children may learn best by hearing an explanation, others might require visual instructions or something more hands-on.
For example, to explain fractions during a math lesson, a teacher might use a combination of drawings on a whiteboard, easily separated objects placed on tables, and verbal guidance to enhance the students’ understanding as comprehensively as possible.
Melissa Varley also notes that another way to cultivate creative thinking and problem-solving in children is through activities that involve repurposing old materials, such as turning empty cans into pencil-holders or making book covers out of paper bags.
Dr. Melissa Varley explains that many of the skills developed in early childhood games and simple grade-school lessons will reappear time and again as children transition to the adult world. After all, it’s not that far-fetched to say that authors and journalists are simply grown-up storytellers, that engineers are just older kids tinkering with bigger toys, and that most other jobs also have their roots in early education.
Encouraging creativity in early childhood education can not only make learning more enjoyable for children, but it can also strengthen their problem-solving abilities, people skills, and self-awareness. Activities such as exploring the environment, storytelling, and physical play are all simple tools to keep children engaged and support the natural power of their creative minds.