Toddlers are the most curious of beings. I’ve been spending time lately with a young girl who spent her first nine months in the hospital and several additional months tethered to a respirator. Now she is two. She still has health issues and breathes through a trach tube in her neck, making it difficult for her to make sounds. She is just beginning to figure out how to babble, as an infant might. But as she has become healthier, one of the first things to emerge has been her persistent (and constant!) curiosity. She points. She signs. When her legs aren’t strong enough for walking, she finds other ways to get around to explore things she wants to see. She makes her questions clear, if we pay attention. In the face of many physical challenges, my young friend’s curiosity will not be stopped! Like the instinct to play, the urge to question is a powerful one. Watching her makes me wonder, yet again, about the often-bumpy path from curious toddler to inquiring creative adult
Lately I’ve had a chance to think about that as I’ve read and thought about the model of gifted education called talent development. The talent development framework recognizes individual differences, but does not view them as fixed (either you are gifted or you aren’t) but as malleable and changing over time. Talent of all kinds must be developed. And, perhaps most importantly, talent requires nurturing and opportunities—as well as lots of effort and practice—to develop into expertise and adult accomplishment.
As I’ve thought about what that might mean for the development of creativity, particularly exceptional creativity, it seems there must be at least three phases to the process that occur during p-12 schooling: early years, later elementary and middle school years, and secondary school and beyond. I’d like to spend the next few blogs thinking about those stages and what they might mean for schools. But first, I need to be clear. Creativity is not for the most able, the most motivated, or the one who finishes assignments first. Creativity is important for everyone. But just as establishing classrooms that support creativity also support learning, classrooms that support creativity for everyone can provide an environment in which we can also develop exceptional creative talent.
So, let’s think about the beginning. Imagine my young friend beginning preschool and early elementary, with her language better developed and her curiosity still going strong. In those early years, creativity development should center on curiosity and play, both free play and play with content. One of the key characteristics associated with creativity is openness to experience—a tendency to embrace the wonder, puzzles, conflicts, and ambiguities of the world. The perpetual “Why?” and “I wonder” that characterize many young people can be the beginning of such openness. Sadly, we have plenty of evidence that curiosity finds itself unwelcome in many schools. This is odd, because curiosity is associated with learning. Not surprisingly, students learn more from text when they find it interesting—when, in fact, they want to learn more.
To support young students’ curiosity and playfulness we need, at minimum to 1) provide opportunities for free imaginative play and playful exploration of content 2) model curiosity and delight in the explorations 3) encourage and support student questioning 4) present and investigate content in ways that are supportive of creativity. The habits of mind regarding how students perceive their role in school are developed early. If we want them to think flexibly about content, wonder, question, and investigate, we must structure the curriculum so those are regular classroom activities—and smile when they occur, even at inconvenient moments.
It brings to mind one of my more memorable first grade teaching experiences: the day the cat walked in the window. I was teaching in an older building, the kind with no air conditioning and creaky wooden windows that struggled to open. One warm spring day we were immersed in a math lesson when a cat strolled through the open classroom window and proceeded to walk along the window sill. Needless to say, the math lesson came to a screeching halt. At that point I had two choices. It was very tempting to throw the cat out and lecture the students on maintaining focus. Fortunately, I resisted the urge and let the children watch the cat. After a few minutes and some gentle persuasion, he exited the way he had come. I asked the students to list as many things as they could that they had observed about the cat, then all the questions they still had about the cat. Several students were dispatched to the library to find the answers to factual questions, while other questions were “answered” through imaginative stories. It was a wonderful afternoon. We learned about mammals and descriptive vocabulary, but mostly I hope my students learned that curiosity was welcomed–and fun.
More on that next time. In the meantime, how do you encourage curiosity in your children?