Inspiring Adults Month: Our Children Need Creative Adults

This month our Creative Skills Manager Heather Armstrong looks at Inspiring Adults, and discusses the role of the adult in developing children’s creativity. Heather will be exploring this subject further at the Inspiration Days coming up shortly. 

In the ten years since Starcatchers began, a lot has changed in the way we think about, talk about and legislate for early childhood across health, education and play.  Advances in neuroscience mean we know more than ever about the way the brain develops in the first three years of life, there has been an increasing focus on the Early Years as a time of key development and as an area of key investment in terms of social change.  With the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence and more recently GIRFEC, there has been a shift away from adult led approaches, putting the voice of the child at the heart of practice.

But what should this look like in practice, and where is the role of the adult within child-led creative experiences? 

The Trouble with Telling Children Exactly What To Do

Ten years ago creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson shared his TED Talk Do Schools Kill Creativity with the world: it has now been watched more than 37 MILLION times.  (If you’ve never heard of him, take 20 minutes out of your life and nudge those viewing figured towards the 38 million mark.)  He is widely recognised as an inspirational figure and advocates for profound changes in our education systems:

“I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.” Sir Ken Robinson

This isn’t just one man’s opinion.  Developmental scientists at MIT and UC-Berkley have conducted separate studies into the effect of direct instruction on the learning of young children.  The results are clear: direct instruction can limit young children’s learning and discourage curiosity.  Telling children exactly what to do makes them less creative.

It’s powerful evidence like this, along with a raft of other academic research and evidence, that has helped shape current thinking around Early Learning and Childcare away from direct instruction and towards learning being child led.  Across the sector there is a heroic battle to rid every setting of colouring in sheets, fields of identical paper plate sunflowers and other activities where adults lead children step by step through instructions with a specific product or goal in mind.

The future of Early Learning and Childcare lies in child led experiences that foster natural curiosity into a love of learning.  But what does that look like?

What It Means to be Child Led

Firstly I think it’s important say what being child led isn’t supposed to be.  Child led doesn’t mean adults have nothing to contribute, and doesn’t mean “everything has to come from the children”.  While I love and applaud the idea that Early Learning should be about encouraging and building on the natural curiosity and creativity we are born with, an education system based purely on asking children what they want to learn, or what children are “naturally” drawn to, runs the very real risk of perpetuating the equity gap it’s trying to close.

In some parts of Scotland, practitioners are working with two and three year olds who look blankly at, then ignore, open ended materials such as building blocks.  Visual arts materials languish in corners untouched by children who don’t see their relevance.  When you are a child who is growing up in an environment with a lack of stimulation or positive experiences, whose curiosity has been given few or no outlets, where self-expression has been squashed, well meaning adults giving you free access to materials or asking you what you want to learn isn’t enough.  For blank paper to be more interesting than the passive experience of watching a digital screen, you need to understand the potential and relevance of that piece of paper.

Adults Offering Inspiration and Opportunity

Often, the greatest resources a child has access to are the adults around them.  We can and should be sources of knowledge and inspiration, introducing and exploring the arts in a way that helps young children see not just the joy of watching and taking part in great arts experiences, but the relevance of the arts in their young lives, most particularly as an outlet for self-expression.

Activities, exercises, experiences, provocations – whatever you call them, they are not created equal.  Introducing the basic concept of a rhythm game that then gives children the opportunity to alter that rhythm, take turns to lead the group, explore what their bodies are capable of and develop their observation skills is not the same as an adult leading a game of Simon Says.   The best arts experiences provide both inspiration AND opportunity, whether that’s a professional dance production with opportunities for young children to explore the space and move with the dancers, or an Early Years practitioner taping paint brushes to garden canes and wondering who wants to come outside and paint the biggest treasure map EVER.

Education Scotland have defined creativity skills, but if you want a quick way to check if your arts experience is a creative, child-led one, ask yourself four questions:

1.     Are the children using their imaginations?

2.     Are they able to make decisions that are meaningful to them?

3.     Can they see the results of those decisions?

4.     Is there a right and wrong answer to what you’re asking them to do?

If we want children to use their imaginations, we need to provide them with stimulus that fires their imagination in the first place.  Start from what you know they love (or think they might love) and expand on that.  If a child wants to run around outside all morning playing pirates, use a quick scribble and some imaginative play to show mark making can be used to make a treasure map.  Next time they want a treasure map, they can make one themselves.

The decisions being meaningful to them is absolutely crucial.  There’s no point letting children choose between painting trees in light green or dark green paint if they don’t care what colour the tree is, don’t want to paint a tree in the first place, or they don’t even really understand what a tree is.

If we want children to be active learners, explore, learn through trial and error and ultimately build resilience, they need to see the results of their decisions.  They need to mix all the paint colours into a sludgy brown and paint over the beautiful image they already made.  If you ask who might live on another planet, be open to the possibility of a world populated with princesses, fish and border terriers.

And remember: the great thing about the arts is that there are so many different ways to be right.

Be An Inspiring Adult

Think about babies and their obsessions with car keys, remote controls and mobile phones.  Older versions or duplicates only hold their attention for a short while. From when they are very young, children are drawn to whatever is important to adults.  Imagine the arts were as cherished, and as important, as our car keys.

If adults stop singing, dancing, making silly faces and get embarrassed when another adult appears, children will learn that all those things are somehow shameful and wrong.  If adults say “I can’t sing” when they are one who knows all the words to every song in the nursery, or “I can’t draw” when their pen control is vastly better than the average toddler, children will learn to use the same excuses for fear of not being good enough.

If adults introduce arts experiences with joy and enthusiasm, setting loose structures that support children to join in, share and ultimately take charge of the creative process, children will value the power of their own creativity.

Creative Challenges for March

The first thing everyone can do is make the decision to stop saying “I can’t dance/sing/draw/act” in front of the children you work with.  Just stop it.

These downloadable Inspiration Cards can be a great way of generating random ideas and taking yourself through a creative process with the children you work with.  Some of the ideas will be great, some may be a disaster, both are important experiences in terms of creativity.

Inspiration Cards blank-01.jpg


Finally, watch this film about  Spacedust, a beautiful example of a Starcatchers’ interactive performance experience, which saw Starcatchers’ artists in the role of the naïve adult, giving children the opportunity to explain their world, be the experts and take the lead in different ways.  In settings where “everything has to come from the children”, unless a child had wondered aloud what would happen if aliens landed outside one day, something like this could never happen.







One thought on “Inspiring Adults Month: Our Children Need Creative Adults

  1. Fabulous Heather, I shall print this off and give staff a read at it. Makes total sense and encourages the development of core skills in a way that is more respectful to children’s current age and stage of development, and their rights!


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