Columns, Imagine That

It’s never too late

Laura Mann

I’m just not that creative.” This is a phrase that I have heard from countless adults who don’t believe themselves to have an artistic bent. As we grow older, creativity is a difficult trait to see in ourselves.

It’s easy to see creativity in children. Kids use their imaginations when playing or interacting with the world around them. But how does the adult who just “isn’t that creative” help nurture creativity in their child?

Even if we can’t explain why we like something, we know what we like when we see it.

In order to help children exercise their creative muscle, parents must learn to recognize creativity when we see it — not just in our children, but in the world around us. In order to recognize something, we must know what it is; with a concept as abstract as creativity, this is a tall order.

Readers have certainly heard the phrase “I can’t explain it, but I’ll know it when I see it.” Because the concept of creativity is abstract, it’s easy to think that a non-creative person is ill-equipped to recognize it. However, remember that most creative products, such as books, movies, mathematical formulas and art, are intended for mass consumption. Many strikingly original products resonate deeply with the masses; we can appreciate the beauty, originality, and brilliance of the works of Einstein, Picasso, Newton, and Bob Dylan.

While many would agree that there’s a lot of awful pop media out there, most folks can pinpoint a few examples of art, music, television, and writing that they see value in. Even if we can’t explain why we like something, we know what we like when we see it.

The challenges of creative thinking

Psychologist J.P. Guilford broke our problem-solving thought processes into two parts: convergent thinking, in which we find the single best solution to a problem; and divergent, or creative, thinking, in which we come up with as many solutions as possible.

When we watch a suspenseful movie, we are on the edge of our seats because we do not know how it will resolve. TV, film, and mystery writers are examples of divergent thinking; they seek to keep the audience engaged by using original, unexpected solutions to problems presented by the plot. Next time you read or view something suspenseful, notice how each plot twist is resolved. Did it turn out as you expected? If not, the writers did a good job of thinking creatively. If you predicted the ending, perhaps you are the one who is thinking creatively, coming up with solutions to the plot twists through divergent thinking. Many adults who swear that they are not creative employ this creative thought process when watching TV or movies or reading that Stieg Larsson novel.

Parents and educators can also employ this tactic when watching television or reading books with children. Take a break and ask what they think will happen next. Then try suggesting something ridiculous or nonsensical. What if “the Little Engine that Could,” upon making it up the hill, suddenly reared up on her hind wheels and began dancing? The Engine certainly has the motivation to celebrate and be silly upon reaching her goal.

Once your child begins responding to the possibility of wildly imaginative plot twists (divergent thinking), try to come up with ways that one of these wild ideas could make sense in the context of the plot (convergent thinking). This is an incredibly useful skill in the real world; when a solution doesn’t readily present itself, coming up with an alternate and making that alternate work is often our only option. Every adult has done this, often without recognizing it.

Noticing divergent thinking in ourselves is a great first step to nurturing this type of creative thought process in our children. It’s never too early to start the process of creative problem-solving, and never too late to hone your creativity. Imagine that!

Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. She often co-authors the “Imagine That!” column with her father, storyteller Michael Mann. This column was written by Laura.

© Michael Mann, 2010, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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