What is the importance of creativity for young children? Ruth Churchill Dower explores the wide-ranging and ultimately limitless benefits of arts activity.

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Animated conversation at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park
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Ruth Churchill Dower

Creativity is one of those words that is tricky to get our heads around, especially in relation to young children. On the one hand, we know what it means when we feel creative or are inspired by someone else being creative. On the other hand, it’s hard to pin down and put a satisfactory definition to it. One of the reasons for this is because creativity encompasses so many aspects of what it means to be human, from imaginative and conscious thought to more intuitive, less conscious sensations; from the physical to the emotional; from the brain to the body; and from the spirit to the soul.

For children the ability to imagine the world is crucial to fill the gap between experience and understanding

The feelings that come from creating or experiencing a work of art or performance, such as wonder, satisfaction, intrigue, curiosity and excitement, have a lot to do with the different responses happening in the brain and the body. Interacting with different artforms can directly impact the nervous system to generate and intensify sensation, while arts activities can become highly motivating due to the positive relationship between aesthetic pleasure and dopamine production in the central reward centre.

In short, using the arts to stimulate a child’s creativity speaks to their neurology, psychology, physiology and biology, all of which are informed by their social and cultural contexts. Therefore, each child’s creative action and re-action can be subjective and different, making it even harder to pin down what is good about creativity, and how to stimulate and sustain it.

Scholars around the world have defined creativity as being inventive, original or innovative, turning a new idea into something that hasn’t been made before, creating a new product, or an idea that is both novel and useful in a particular social context. I don’t disagree, but from the many hundreds of creative encounters I have experienced with young children, I think it’s something even more fundamental than this.

It’s about being able to discover and express emotions, passions, ideas, resourcefulness, identities and a unique view on life in a variety of ways that are unlimited by social constraints such as time, money, academic standards, stress or peer pressure.

The whole point of early years creativity is that it is the one thing that is owned and defined by children, not by us as adults

Benefits of creativity

With the help of neuroimaging, there is a growing body of evidence examining the benefits of creative and cultural experiences on early brain development, which happens most prolifically between the ages of birth to three. (For a fuller explanation go to this article I’ve written.)

There are also many studies pointing to the importance and value of arts and creative practice for children’s learning and development, for family and community cohesion, and for society in general:

  • Creative or cultural experiences that involve children experimenting with new ideas, techniques and materials can help them develop subsequent abilities in the arts.
  • Training in specific artforms can impact development in other areas of cognition. For instance, music activates the same areas of the brain that are active during reading and in mathematical processing, especially in tasks common to both such as counting, ratios or intervals, creating patterns and sequences, tone groupings and spatial reasoning skills.
  • Early childhood arts and cultural activities can significantly strengthen parent–child bonds and engage families in their children’s learning, providing a positive focus for shared experience and communication.
  • Creative, play-based experiences in early childhood can help children communicate authentically and effectively, expressing their feelings, emotions, thoughts and ideas in non-verbal and pre-verbal ways.
  • Early years arts can help build intrinsic human qualities, such as love, self-expression, independence, self-awareness and empathy, self-esteem, resilience and imagination.
  • Creativity strengthens human connection by building trust and connecting children across cultural, religious, generational and socio-economic divides. It breaks down language barriers, cultural prejudices and societal differences.
  • Stimulating experiences at galleries, theatres, dance, arts or music venues will offer many parents the ideas, confidence and resources to play with their children as a natural part of everyday life.
  • Creativity promotes strong physical growth through movements, such as pushing, pulling, crawling, standing, running, spinning and climbing, as well as sensory health and vitality. Mark-making, drawing, crafting and singing help with the coordination and muscle memory required for motor development as well as supporting the healthy development of motion and balance and body-position awareness systems required for sensory learning. The strength and quality of a child’s physical development, or lack of, has a direct impact on their emotional wellbeing and learning potential.
  • Creative activities linked to our emotions can support good mental health, reduce anxiety, build self-esteem and self-confidence, increase a sense of agency and empowerment, develop strong self-regulatory processes, increase the immune function and decrease a reliance on health care.

Imaginative activity

The common element that connects both play and creativity is the engagement of the imagination – not just for aesthetic creations but for the thousands of daily activities of discovery and meaning-making. For children the ability to imagine the world is crucial to fill the gap between experience and understanding, and this mostly happens through image-making in their heads.

All the possibilities for image-making that exist through the arts, such as crafting, painting, drawing, modelling, sculpting, photography and movement, become essential not only to help children strengthen their imaginative skills, but as opportunities for children to make new images of the world based on both knowledge (memory) and imagination (new ideas). The richer their environment and early experiences, the richer their imagination and their ability to construct worlds that make sense of the unknown to them.

At the same time, imaginative activity enables children to process their thinking, ideas and knowledge through verbal (language or sound), non-verbal (embodied) or representational (image-based) behaviours. Essentially, children translate their imagination into expression to communicate their ideas, thoughts and feelings, or to ask questions of the world around them. In fact, movement is often a generative way of thinking, where creative ideas can occur more easily when the body is in fluid movement and the mind is deep in thought. It is a form of mental play where, again, the world can be recreated in new and exciting ways.

Observable behaviours

Children tell us all the time when we are nurturing their brains and bodies through their ‘observable behaviours’. We can see they are intrinsically motivated when they demonstrate higher levels of interest in exhibits and activities and talk about connections with their personal life.

Children’s satisfaction is often clear to see, as are their frustrations, but sometimes it’s harder to spot the more complex emotions and responses, which is why listening to their languages is crucial – body language, gestures, physical, social or creative expressions.

Getting the resources, environments and relationships right means putting in place the right types and quality of opportunities for us to listen to children, and for them to express themselves to us in an ongoing, reciprocal cycle of communication.

The whole point of early years creativity is that it is the one thing that is owned and defined by children, not by us as adults. We can put boundaries around it that can be measured, but essentially we can’t capture the unlimited potential of the imagination in the way we can capture learning outcomes. When children’s creativity is unleashed, we don’t want to tie it down by applying our own interpretations that reinforce adult-oriented judgements of what is considered good. We want to uncork the bottle and let the genie fly.

Ruth Churchill Dower is Director of Earlyarts, as well as a musician, storyteller, author, strategic advisor and commentator.
https://earlyarts.co.uk

This article has been written while Ruth prepares her new book ‘Creativity and the Arts in Early Years – Supporting Young Children’s Development and Well-Being’ to be published next summer. Sign up to find out more about the new book and for the quarterly Earlyarts Ebulletin.

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