Want to Foster Creativity in Children? Science Says, “Nurture Curiosity!”

Want to Foster Creativity in Children? Science Says, “Nurture Curiosity!”

Education June 27, 2017 / By Dr. KH Kim
Want to Foster Creativity in Children? Science Says, “Nurture Curiosity!”

Whether you're a teacher or parent looking to foster creativity in children, finding time to indulge curiosity is essential. That's easier said than done in today's demanding climate, with such high premiums placed on immediate achievement and rapid skill acquisition. Have no fear! This article is all about finding space for the joy and magic of curiosity "in the cracks" of modern life, whether you're looking to take on a year long project or only have five minutes a week to spare.

People get sweaty palms for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they get them before a first date with a long time crush or because an important exam or meeting is fast approaching. Teenaged Albert Einstein used to get sweaty palms because he could not reconcile his daydream of riding alongside a light beam with the then current descriptions of the physical properties of light. Make no mistake; it was a burning curiosity about a seemingly nonsensical, teenaged fantasy that pulled Einstein through decades of study and resulted in unrivaled leaps of understanding about the universe. Einstein’s mathematical expertise and critical thinking skills (i.e., inbox thinking) were integral ingredients to his life’s work, but he would have never developed them if the way had not been lit by spark of curiosity (i.e., outbox thinking). Curiosity is the spontaneous and free desire to learn that all innovators must possess. There are plenty of deficits an innovator can overcome, but this desire is not one of them. If we want children to grow into productive and happy innovators, we must ensure they learn to be as curious as Albert was.

The good news is children are born curious. The bad news is curiosity is a delicate thing. It requires safety and surety, but it also requires access to novelty and uncertainty. More than anything, it requires patience and an appetite for seemingly useless whimsy. Because American schools are increasingly under pressure to meet yearly benchmarks through standardized testing, they have little tolerance (much less any appetite) for the sprawling playground that curiosity calls home. Because high-stakes testing demands the same goal for all students (to demonstrate proficiency on a high-stakes test) and exacts such a price for failure (school funding, teacher employment/rating, student promotion), teachers are forced to struggle against the natural curiosity of their students. They must discourage the “distractions” of deviation, individuality, and original thought because students must use standardized response templates to progress in their educational careers. Our students are developing terrible Pavlovian responses, shuddering with boredom and fear at the mere thought of books, calculators, and classrooms rather than embracing them tools as the vessels of ideas, freedom, and exploration which they naturally are.

Don’t despair! If you’re a teacher or a parent who wishes to foster creativity in children, there is hope. While we wait for policy changes to free the school curriculums from the overwhelming wall of obligations high-stakes testing brings, we can grow curiosity in the cracks. Like a lotus flower in the mud, daffodils sprouting up from the spaces in a sidewalk, or creeping vines on the façade of a building, curiosity can flourish in the unlikeliest of places, and with less of a commitment than you thought. The following question answering strategies and activities are not content specific. They are designed to foster a love of learning in children and to give them the skills to indulge their curiosity.

Before answering children’s questions, help children develop a lifelong passion for learning and empower themselves and their curiosity in self-directed exploration by:

  • Establishing close relationships through accommodating and adapting to their needs (securely attached children develop the courage to explore the new instead of clinging to the known)
  • Cultivating safe and free climates for curious exploration that:
    • Allows children’s curiosity to determine the pace and direction of learning instead over structuring and scheduling with a focus on rote informationon  
    • Follows children’s interests (e.g., weather, bugs, dinosaurs, etc.)
    • Promotes, sparks, and provokes curious minds; model attentive, observant, and curious behavior
    • Avoids simply accepting and memorizing facts
    • Provides time for exploration, questions, and risk-taking
    • Recognizes and rewards those who ask questions, learn, grow and are open and responsive to new ideas, improvement, and change
    • Delays judgment about good or bad when children present new ideas; respond positively, optimistically and explore further
    • Commits time for reflection and discourse, and help children understand the positive impact of their questions and curiosities
    • Provides non-structured, self-directed experimenting with the complex, real world through:
      • Learning by doing, building, interviewing, storytelling, or cooking
      • Promoting after school clubs and electives
      • Allotting some time (even if it’s only 20 or 30 minutes a week) for students’ exploration through activities (e.g., free reading, visits to kids’ museums, show and tell, etc.)
  • Providing examples, lessons, and environments to foster a love of learning and reading such as:
    • Share your love of learning with children (e.g., self-teaching, self-training, etc.).
    • Discuss short- and long-term educational planning with children, emphasizing the importance of learning, not only for academic or professional success, but also for its own sake—for the joy of learning (see small commitment #1 and both medium commitments on teacher activity list)
  • Sharing your love of science such as:
    • Share the fun parts while reading a science book
    • Demonstrate scientific principles in person (reactions, movements, etc.) whenever it’s safe and feasible
    • Connect science topics to children’s everyday life
    • Share stories about science history and the people behind it
  • Exploring the outdoors and looking for lives (animals, birds, butterflies, plants, bugs, etc.) those from science books and learn about them by asking questions such as:
    • What do you see?
    • What do you think they are doing?
    • What is happening here?
    • What else might be affected by this?
    • What would happen if they don’t?
    • How can we find out more?
    • What are similarities and differences between them and people?
  • Planning out specific times and resources to support the follow up to student questions through:
    • A day-long field trip including:
      • At the library or in the computer lab researching the answers to questions generated
      • An afternoon with an expert
      • A morning outdoors
    • Visiting the same place a second time rewards curiosity by allowing students the satisfaction of testing their hypotheses after answers to questions have sought out
  • Exploring without store-bought toys:
    • Experiment with ingredients in the kitchen
    • Make ice cream and find out what rock salt does
    • Grow plants by planting seeds (in clear cups to watch the roots growing), and watch the life cycle of the plants daily
    • Collect natural objects (e.g., leaves, shells, rocks, fossils) and classify them by similarities and differences (in shapes, sizes, colors, etc.)
    • Look at things under a magnifying glass or a microscope (e.g., water from a pond, flower petals or leaves, fingers, etc.) and find similarities and differences
    • Visit zoos, aquariums, museums, technology centers, and give plenty of time to learn about different types of animals or things, asking questions about them

When children ask DIFFICULT questions, answer them with great care following the process below:

  1.  Don't dismiss, yell, freak out, dodge, or overreact to any questions.
  2.  Express happiness they asked such questions.
  3.  Delve deeper into what's going on in their head. Find out what prompted such questions and, to respond them more accurately, ask them to elaborate the questions further such as:
    1. Why do you ask?
    2. What does it mean to you?
    3. What do you know or think about it?
    4. What are you worried about?
  4.  Make the questions opportunities to chat with them.
  5.  Be sensitive to what they think or feel and why; validate their thoughts or emotions.
  6.  When you don’t know the answer, say I don’t know. How could we find the answer? Your approach to questions is more important than the answers in terms of developing children’s curiosity.
  7.  For younger children, give a quick, honest, objective answer, and then encourage a discussion. For older children, provide an outline of the answer with follow-up questions, and then let them independently go off and discover more questions and answers.
  8.  Elicit questions using a discovery approach, instead of lecturing, and teach how to ask open-ended, higher-level questions.
  9.  Encourage noisy and disorganized argument and debate; avoid rushing their thinking process.
  10.  Go to the library or search online, from sources at a little bit higher than their level, to look for further answers together, with visuals.
  11.  Teach how to search for and find detailed answers, instead of just accepting easy answers.
  12.  Ask questions to make them think; focus on the critical thinking process more than arriving at the right answer; encourage them to develop their own ideas and delve below the surface with questions such as:
    1. How do you feel about this?
    2. Why do you think this happened?
    3. What do you think would happen if …?
  13.  Guide them to resources enabling them to find out information on their own and seek out answers for themselves.
  14.  Provide them with additional resources and activities they can engage (e.g. reliable and valid websites and books) to assist them in answering further questions.
  15.   Observe their research processes and ask them questions about similarities and differences between findings.
  16. Let them make their own mistakes and fail when trying something new or experimenting; let them figure out how to correct the mistake.
  17.  If they ask for your help, ask questions guiding them toward the solutions instead of telling them how.
  18.  Use qualifying terms and avoid absolute terms or guarantees (e.g., definitely, all or nothing, black or white, work or play, etc.).
  19.  If questions are related to:
    1. Sex: Set safe boundaries about what body parts are off-limits to others, and together find the facts about what can happen when having unsafe sex.
    2. Drugs, alcohols, smoking, or illegal acts: Tell them they have control over their actions but less control over the consequences (also, tell the truth about your mistakes and allow them to see your imperfections).
    3. Money: Discuss the difference between wants and needs.
    4. God: Discuss your own beliefs and values and then explain how others believe differently.
    5. Non-factual science: Research various answers and then explain these arguments are not accepted by all scientists.
    6. Fights or divorce: Model behavior on respectfully resolving disagreements or differences during fights (also, explain decisions about not living together).
    7. Death: Explain inevitability of death, the preciousness of life,  how valuable spending time and building memories together are and then discuss your religious or cultural beliefs related to death as well as others’ beliefs, so they know other people believe differently.
    8. Social rejection:
      1. Validate what they think or feel by empathizing with them.
      2. Ask them what they think they can do about it to help them think about their own solutions and empower them to work through their feelings.
      3. Share your own childhood experiences with rejection and getting through them.
      4. Teach them to imagine how others feel, and nurture big-picture thinking, and empathy and compassion.
  20.  If there are no definite answers, tell them nobody knows for sure, though many people have tried to find an answer; encourage them to try as well.
  21.  Indicate room for change fostered by new research and encourage them to pursue further in-depth questions.
  22.  For further questions, nurture children’s reading habits to become independent readers who love reading by:
    1. Not over-scheduling their day so they’ve time to read without pressure
    2. Sharing your passion for books by visiting the library, constantly reading, and sharing how books entertain you, ignite your imagination, and/or fuel fantasies
    3. Making reading a central activity at home and in school, and make learning to read fun rather than work
    4. Reading books together:
      1. Read age appropriate books to them regularly even if they can’t understand.
      2. Have children of all ages read to you.
      3. Read poetry to them in cadences and rhythms improving their use of language.

Here are sample activities teachers (and parents) can do to foster creativity in children. They will not revolutionize your teaching (or parenting), yet they could alter children’s intellectual lives in marvelously unpredictable ways. Like a single dollop of bright red paint on an otherwise blank white canvas, sometimes the smallest things make the most vivid differences:  

Note: While the following small, medium, and large commitments are phrased in a teacher focused way, there is no reason that parents can't use them in the home. If anything, they are even easier and more fun when the formalities of the classroom are removed and the familial relationship is allowed to take center stage during the activity.


1.     Book Showcase (5-10 minutes weekly): Each week, showcase a different book from your classroom (or home) library (it can be any book you’ve read, but if it’s something also available to children, that’s even better). Spend a minute or two sharing something you learned from the book and why you liked it (but don’t summarize it, you should let them uncover the book’s mysteries on their own). Make suggestions about the kinds of books you think they might be interested in. Additionally, getting into the habit of conspicuously reading or having a book around can be great inspiration.

2.     Static/flow journals (5-10 minutes weekly): To be alive and awake is to be caught in the flow of time. Each of us encounters the wide world in every moment. It comes at us in dizzying variety and via more avenues than it’s possible to count. If we are to pull a melody from all the noise of existence, we must narrow the scope of our attention and plug our ears against the notes that don’t fit.

Our search for a melody (whether it comes in the form of a career or family, an art, hobby, or the pursuit of knowledge in a discipline we love) gives many of us joy and lends meaning to our lives, but it demands large amounts of our time and mental energy in return. This is certainly a fair trade, but a single melody does not make an entire symphony or a whole life. Many of us long to hear music other than our own or else we find ourselves being reminded to, “stop and smell the roses” by our loved ones.

It’s worth your time to listen for other melodies with children. Not only is it a relaxing exercise, but helping them use their curiosity can sharpen their ears for when they pursue their own melodies. Static/flow journals are designed to help children notice the world all around them by challenging them to search for and pay attention to static and flowing events that are not a part of their conscious lives.

Brainstorm daily events that people frequently encounter but do not typically scrutinize. A few examples: the number and sorts of birds we pass every morning (and whether they are singing or silent) the lunch of dinner menu at home or school, the genres of TV shows, movies, magazines, or books we or people close to us gravitate toward, where light streaming through a particular window hits a wall or the floor at a particular time of day and what color it is, our own moods when we engage with certain daily tasks, the mood or activities of a librarian or crossing guard or cashier we see most days.

Once a list is generated, ask them to select one that they predict is mostly static (or unchanging) and one that is mostly flowing (or frequently changing). Have them observe their chosen phenomena for a few minutes each day. Ask them to record what indeed is static about their static selection, but also what flows (and vice versa for the flowing selection). Spend a little time each week discussing what’s surprising about observing something that was once almost invisible and lifeless over time. Did their static and flowing items surprise them or conform to their expectations? Can they think of anyone whose life might center around these events that are peripheral to our own? Are there any events that are central to our own lives but peripheral to others? How might that change other peoples’ observations of what we do?

These journals and discussions can help build the reflex to pay attention and observe the world that will pay off in countless ways while being fun for children. Not the least of which is by encouraging the kind of attention necessary for close reading.

3.     Circling Back (5-10 minutes weekly): Children invariably ask questions (sometimes tangential or unrelated to the lesson or activity) at times when it’s difficult to answer them. We might mean to address these questions later, but who has the time? Sometimes they ask questions precisely to avoid a responsibility. Knowing this can make responding earnestly to “out of left field” thoughts particularly frustrating after you poured much into a lesson or activity.* While it’s obviously impossible to answer (or remember) every inopportunely timed question, it’s easier and more important than you think to circle back. Try to record one or two questions on the board or a notepad you keep handy.Make a show of doing this, half of the importance of circling back is how it can imbue children curiosity with value by demonstrating care or shared curiosity. Return to this question whenever you get the chance, it doesn’t matter when or if your answer isn’t particularly deep. It’s better if they can participate in finding the answer with you. Rewarded curiosity leads to more curiosity. Also, don’t worry, children who ask questions simply to distract might stop doing so if they find themselves missing play time to discover something they didn’t really care about (even better: they might find they did care after all!).


The Weekly Curiosity
Materials & Time: Notecards/5-10 minutes prep time/5-10 minutes a week in class time/ 
10-20 minutes a week in individual student guidance and/or internet time (depending upon your situation)

What Happens: Begin by modeling your own curiosity about something encountered each day (like the origin of your school’s street name or why chalk is harder to erase from a blackboard after left there for a week). Show how you can use a resource to find the answer to your question. If used as a weekly activity, you might gradually add complexity. Providing a mini-lesson about a new way to form a question/curiosity one week or using a new resource type the next. Allow students to submit their own curiosities on notecards. Each week, spend time with one student as he or she searches out an answer and crafts a short presentation for the class. Can be used as a tool to help individual students build research/presentation skills and provides a fun fact/short break for the rest of the class each week after quiz or whenever you’d like!

The Multimedia Poem
Materials & Time: posterboard/chart paper, yarn or markers, art supplies, printer/45 minutes to an hour (or more) for initial set up

What Happens: Select a grade level appropriate poem (better yet, have the class select one together). Poems longer than 10 lines but short enough to be written on 1 or 2 pieces of chart paper (in a font legible from a distance) are best. Once you’ve selected a poem and written it on chart paper, place it somewhere your students will encounter it frequently. Start the process of transforming it into a multimedia poem by adding your own “riff” first. Example: the line “Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,” from “Dover Beach” might remind you of one summer day when you noticed the color of blueberry juice soaking into your paper plate, so you take a photograph blueberry juice on a paper plate and hang it next to the poem, indicating the line that inspired the photograph with yarn. Maybe you’re inspired to write a few sentences about an emotion the whole poem inspires in you, or want to label a song that you think would go well with it. All of these are valid riffs. Encourage students to add their own riffs whenever they are inspired to. There are no wrong kinds of riffs. The students are creating a community of reaction to the poem. They might even want to riff on each other’s riffs or change something they put up because they’ve noticed a line means something different to them now that they’ve thought about it or seen how someone else responded to it.


The Curious, Natural World Around Us (all grade levels, but especially 3-8)

Project Overview:
A classroom pet needs to be fed over holidays and taken to the vet on weekends. It requires supervision and it will repeatedly make a mess. It’s expensive. The pièce de résistance: of all the observable traits and behaviors animals have evolved over eons, the ability to infuse months of 3rd period science or language arts with heartbreak by suddenly dying might be the one you and your students always remember. So, why do teachers choose to incorporate aquariums and terrariums into their classrooms? More importantly, why should you? The obvious answer might be that classroom pets allow students to engage with the natural world through sensory experience and it stimulates their curiosity. Curiosity is an integral trait of creative people, but “effective curiosity” is even better. By pairing a classroom pet with a curated set of informational sources about animals, from which students can learn about the parts natural world they cannot see or touch directly (an “illumination station”) and a “discovery board” where they can proudly display what they’ve learned, you create a synergy that helps students to leverage their curiosity into new knowledge. At its core, this project is about teaching students to bridge the gap between the world as it meets us through everyday experience and the abstract resources (books, articles, websites, the wisdom of experts) that can help explain it.

The aquarium/animal(s)/care supplies:
Costs and materials for this portion of the project will vary. The following resources can be helpful in determining your specific needs and providing strategies/funding to complete the project:

1.    Pets in the Classroom ( http://www.petsintheclassroom.org/considering-a-classroom-pet/ ): provides advice and recommendations for beginning, intermediate, and advanced care-level animals allergies). Also awards grants for purchasing animals and care supplies. Pre-K through 8th grade private and public school teachers are eligible for the grants, which vary depending upon animal selection.
2.    Donors Choose ( https://www.donorschoose.org ): a general, crowd-source based fundraising website. It offers more freedom than “Pets…,” no grade level or funding amount restrictions, but requires a teacher generated application and presentation of project. It can be used to supplement a grant provided by Pets in the Classroom.
Illumination Station:
Grade level, access to the internet & multimedia, and teacher preference will drive this portion of the project. Here are a few starter ideas: 
1.    Zoobooks (http://zoobooks.com ) 
2.    National Geographic Kids (http://kids.nationalgeographic.com ) While these long running and perennially popular publications typically center around the sorts of wild animals that it’s neither feasible nor safe to keep in a classroom, Zoobooks about sharks, whales, or any of the great inhabitants of the deep can help inspire wonder at their smaller relatives kept in salt water aquariums. Turtles and lizards go well with Zoobooks about alligators and crocodiles, or a National Geographic website about Galapagos tortoises. If a bearded dragon barely half a foot from snout to tip of the tail fails to hold students’ attention midway through the year, learning about her cousin, the 200 pound Komodo Dragon with deadly saliva, through videos, books, or trips to the zoo, might cast her daily hunt for crickets in another light.
3.    Animal experts are wonderful resources. Their visits are memorable and fun events for you and your students to look forward to, they provide a natural point of focus for developing questions or goalposts/deadlines to meet for projects. Most major zoos have educational outreach departments that offer a wide variety of experiences both in zoo and in the classroom.

Discovery Board
A whiteboard/chartpaper/sticky note area on the wall where students can post their discoveries, questions, and connections for their classmates to see will help make the interplay between the pet and the illumination station more explicit and drive home the idea of curiosity blossoming into new knowledge.

What The Teacher Does
The most important role of the teacher in this project is to facilitate the easy flow of information between the pet and the resources. This means being a tireless promoter of the resources available and attentive to/praising students who engage actively with them, without an eye towards a particular “quality” of result.

What The Students Do
The students should be free to come and go as they please. Their interactions with the illumination station and the pet should be fun and come at their own pace. To encourage some students who might not engage on their own, requiring a certain number of discoveries during the course of the semester might be helpful, but they should be free to make the kinds of discoveries that they want, not be forced into a particular line of inquiry.

The Philosophy
When setting up your “Curious, Natural World,” think about how you can foster “effective curiosity” in your students. This means that you want to inspire wonder, but you also want to inspire students to satiate their wonder with knowledge. Two important factors to remember: 1. While you may choose to center activities, lessons, or assessments around your aquarium, it can be most effective if you and your students think of it as a permanent fixture/learning space in your classroom: a place that can be visited, explored, approached and left at leisure; alone, in groups, or guided by the teacher. Curiosity and freedom go hand in hand. If you create a high pressure environment around your classroom pet, you may stifle the natural curiosity that can grow in your students 2. It is the connection between the students caring for/playing with the animals and learning about them with the “illumination station” that is most critically important. It’s true that your students will benefit in countless ways from the specific experience of caring for an animal in a classroom community and learning about them, but the larger goal of this project is to foster curiosity. It is a tangible example of how the world of experience and the acts of reading and research can inform and enrich one another. Your classroom can be the place where students learn that there are resources to explain the everyday world (and color it into exciting mysteries) and that they are capable of using these resources (and growing from their use) themselves.


If caring for animals in the classroom is not a realistic option: consider substituting plants, geodes, crystals, metals, fossils, driftwood. A magnifying glass or microscope can reveal hidden facets of these seemingly familiar objects.

Perhaps you can create an illumination station and discovery board in preparation for a trip to a zoo or park. 



Find more research findings about how to foster creativity in children in The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation, and follow Dr. Kim @Kreativity_Kim.


By Dr. KH Kim and Alex Riccio

Dr. Kim is Professor of Educational Psychology at The College of William & Mary. She has trained groups of individuals around the world, helping foster their own and others' creativity. She has dedicated her career to the research on creativity and innovators in hopes of helping individuals, especially those who feel different or misfits, use the power of creativity to achieve their dreams. As a culmination of her research for almost 30 years, she published her new book, “The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation, to change the world!

Alex has been involved with public education since he was an undergraduate at Fordham University where he spent weekends mentoring local students. Since then, he has studied secondary education at the City College of New York and the New Science of Creativity at The William & Mary. He taught middle school English Language Arts and Social Studies in the Bronx for 6 years before teaching students through-out New York City how to code with Vision Education and Media. He’s a frequent reader, writer, and hiker who is passionate about building educational curriculums that use cutting edge and exciting ideas from the world of academia to enrich the lives of students in schools everywhere. 

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