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Cultivating Creativity and Innovation: Experiences and Activities

Knowing the reasons that drive what you do is essential in all aspects of your work as a manager. Having a strong philosophical framework on creativity will help as you encourage staff members to think about their roles in promoting creativity in the children and youth with which they work.

  • Articulate a philosophical framework for nurturing creativity.
  • Help staff members offer experiences, activities and interactions that promote creativity.
  • Help staff distinguish between process- and product-oriented experiences.
  • Brainstorm ways to meet the creative needs of all learners.



Consider the statement: “Children should be seen and not heard.” If you were operating from this philosophy, what would be your approach as a parent or as a teacher? What kinds of things would children do or not do as a result of you holding that belief? Now think about what a teacher’s approach might be if he believes there is only one right way to do something. What if he believes that there is no time for play, as children need to be ready for school? Your beliefs and attitudes influence your actions.

Working with children and youth requires decision-making based on research and best practice, not on personal beliefs. Curricular decisions should be based on a philosophical framework. A philosophical framework bundles research and best practice and provides a way for teachers to evaluate their curricular decisions. To achieve positive child and youth outcomes, it is important that all staff members in your program operate from the same philosophical framework. Understanding that all staff may not share the same beliefs, and being able to clearly articulate why you support a philosophy that promotes creativity, will ensure consistency across your program.

The core components of a philosophical framework for creativity include these ideas:

  • Creativity prepares children and youth with the skills they need to be successful in the 21st century.
  • Creativity includes more than the arts.
  • Creativity is within all of us; it is universal.

21st Century Skills

Most people can agree that the world in which their children and youth will live, work and play will be very different in the future than it is today. The constant change in societal demands and norms requires an evolving repertoire of skills.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian, says that for children to be prepared for the 21st century, they need the following skills and knowledge:

An understanding of history, civics, geography, mathematics, and science, so they may comprehend unforeseen events and act wisely; the ability to speak, write, and read English well; mastery of a foreign language; engagement in the arts, to enrich their lives; close encounters with great literature, to gain insight into timeless dilemmas and the human condition; a love of learning, so they continue to develop their minds when their formal schooling ends; self-discipline, to pursue their goals to completion; ethical and moral character; the social skills to collaborate fruitfully with others; the ability to use technology wisely; the ability to make and repair useful objects, for personal independence; and the ability to play a musical instrument, for personal satisfaction.

A group of more than 250 researchers across 60 institutions worldwide (Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills) identified four categories of 21st century skills:

  • Ways of thinking: Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning
  • Ways of working: Communication and collaboration
  • Tools for working: Information and communications technology and information literacy
  • Skills for living in the world: Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility

As a manager, it is important for you to ensure that staff members recognize that while the three R’s—reading, writing and arithmetic—are essential, so are the three C’s: creativity, communication, and collaboration.

Interactions, Routines, and Experiences

Though creativity is within us, it is nurtured in our interactions with others and the experiences we share. Creativity is not something extra that your staff does; it is a part of everything they do. Children spend a great deal of time at your program, and boredom can set in even in the best of classrooms—even in a high-quality program such as yours. Doing the same things over and over with the same people at the same time day after day is monotonous. When it comes to interactions, routines, and experiences in cultivating creativity, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • A positive and encouraging attitude brings out the best in people. There is no place in child and youth programs for people who are negative and judgmental.
  • Routines are anything but routine. A hurry-up-and-get-it-done approach minimizes the opportunities to connect and learn new things.
  • Building on the interests of children and youth and capitalizing on teachable moments creates excitement and enhances learning. Rote drill and skill activities dull creativity.
  • Adults need play time too. As an ice-breaker at a staff meeting, put a collection of interesting objects and simple materials out for staff members to collaborate creatively with one another.

For more in-depth information on strategies for cultivating creativity in each of these areas, refer to the age tracks for this course.

It is the Arts and So Much More

Our lives are enriched through the arts. It is essential that children and youth are exposed to a variety of artistic forms, including dance, art, theater, and music. Opportunities for children and youth to express themselves artistically, to experiment with different artistic mediums, and to enhance their artistic capabilities should be part of their daily educational experiences at your program. Art is a way for children and youth to solve problems, conceptualize the world, and create new possibilities.

Creativity though is more than the arts; it is science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). As a manager, it is important for you to emphasize to staff that while the arts are important, so are hands-on STEM experiences. New ways of thinking lead to new ways of doing, which are fueled by creativity.

“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”— Walt Disney

Creative Expression is Universal

As you learned in Lesson One, creativity is something within all of us. The question is not whether we are creative, but rather how we express our creativity. While creativity can be expressed in a multitude of ways, there are some specific ways creativity is expressed across the age continuum.

Age Chart



Infants express creativity in their connections with others. Here are just a few examples:

  • Smiling when they hear a familiar voice
  • Tracking the movement of a mobile when they lie on their backs for a nap
  • Helping to hold their bottle when they are feeding
  • Mouthing an object that has come into their space
  • Cooing to the rhythm of the sounds they hear


Toddlers express their creativity as they explore their surroundings and the people and things in them. Here are a few examples:

  • Using their bodies as tools to get something they want
  • Squeezing their bodies in tight spaces to see if it fits
  • Taking something from their friend because they want it
  • Creating new uses for objects and people


Preschoolers express their creativity as they engage the world of ideas. Here are a few examples:

  • Building castles out of wood blocks
  • Making birthday cakes out of play dough
  • Exclaiming "that's my name" when they see a word that begins with the same letter as their name
  • Re-enacting their recent visit to the doctor in the dramatic play area


School-agers express their creativity as they try to understand themselves and the world around them more deeply. Here are a few examples:

  • Questioning why they have to do something they are asked to do
  • Wearing their clothes or their hair in different ways
  • Caring incessantly about their peers' opinions of them
  • Focusing on activities they find interesting for long periods of time


As a manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that staff members have a thorough understanding of how creativity is expressed for the ages of the children they serve. If you want a more in-depth description of how creativity is expressed across the age continuum, refer to the direct care tracks for this course.

Culturally Responsive Creative Experiences

Creativity can happen anywhere: quiet moments by yourself, surrounded by a group of enthusiastic people, on a walk, in a car, etc. The opportunities that staff members provide to children and the interactions among staff members and children are critical for promoting creativity.

Take a moment to think about the phrase "culturally responsive creative experiences." Culturally responsive experiences are those that help children see themselves. This may mean opportunities for self-reflection and expression. It may also mean broad exposure to people, ideas, and experiences from around the world. Exposure to the world around them sparks curiosity and creative thinking. In terms of creativity, the term "culture" can be quite broad. Staff members should provide experiences that help children define a sense of self and a sense of the world around them. This may include racial or ethnic identity, but it can also include identities related to family home values, beliefs, and experiences. For example, children may explore the culture of living on a military installation, being an only child, or starting middle school.

Families can be your program's resource for culturally responsive experiences. Invite families to share art, music, foods, and celebrations that are meaningful to them.

Meeting the Needs of ALL Learners

Each child develops differently, and each child approaches creative experiences differently. Some children might have difficulties accessing creative experiences. For example, a child who uses a wheelchair might have trouble reaching a traditional easel. A child with visual or hearing impairments may have trouble viewing a work of art or listening to a piece of music. A child with attention difficulties might be challenged to attend to an experience for any length of time. A child who is easily over-stimulated might not enjoy sensory or open-ended experiences. Adults in your programs must be prepared to meet children where they are and make appropriate creative experiences a priority for all children. Here are some guidelines to help staff members support all learners:

  • Art and creative experiences should always be a choice, and there should be no wrong answers (Head Start, 2013). Each child encounters experiences in his or her own way and at his or her own pace.
  • Do not let disabilities or differences be a barrier to participation. Help staff create adaptations that allow each child to participate fully.
  • Scaffold creative experiences for children who need support. Although creative experiences are often open-ended, it is OK for adults to provide some help when needed. Adults could use a picture schedule to help an individual child begin an activity (i.e., put on smock, pick up brush, dip in paint, and create!). They may use a variety of supports such as peer support, adult support, or environmental modification to help children be successful (Sandall & Schwartz, 2008).

Creative Expression

Creativity at work regardless of age.

Distinguishing between Process- and Product-oriented experiences

Your program should strive to strike a balance between process-oriented experiences and product-oriented experiences. Process-oriented experiences are those experiences that are open-ended, child-directed, and focused on the experience rather than the outcome. For example, children paint at easels, write their own scripts for a play, or experiment with constructing a doll house out of a variety of materials. Product-oriented experiences have a clearly defined goal or outcome. An adult often decides upon the goal. For example, a class of preschool children might all make identical jack-o’-lantern faces out of construction paper at Halloween. When adults dictate to children the size paper to use, colors to use, and product to make, creativity is discouraged (Althouse, Johnson, & Mitchell, 2002).

Not all examples of product-oriented experiences discourage creativity. Product-oriented experiences can be important when children are developing skills. For example, if a child is learning to play a musical instrument, knit, sew, or compose an essay, there are specific skills or strategies the child needs to learn. Creativity flourishes when the child has mastered the skills necessary to perform.

A Balanced Approach

When it comes to igniting creativity, staff members should take a balanced approach. Focusing more on the end result (product) minimizes the importance of the experience itself (process). In other words, the journey is just as important as the destination. Depending on children's ages and the activities they are engaged in, there may be more of a focus on one over the other but not to the exclusion of either. With infants it is all about the process; school-agers may be more interested in the end result. What's important is that children and youth feel empowered to represent their own ideas, not copying someone else's.

You may observe the following in classrooms where the focus is primarily on the process:

  • Little to no emphasis on skill-building
  • Children who aren't interested in activities
  • Lack of classroom management
  • Too many choices leading to overstimulation
  • An emphasis on "kids will learn it when they are ready"

You may observe the following in classrooms where the focus is primarily on the product:

  • Activities that are mostly teacher directed
  • Everyone's artwork looks the same
  • Excessive wait time
  • Too few choices leading to boredom
  • An emphasis on "getting it right"

You may observe the following in classrooms where staff take a balanced approach:

  • Integrated curricular activities that promote creative expression while supporting skill development
  • Interest centers that have materials that can be used in a variety of ways
  • Classroom management strategies that assist children and youth in making choices
  • Unique ideas and ways of doing things are acknowledged and appreciated


As a manager, it is important that you recognize if staff members are not taking a balanced approach. Through coaching and professional development, you can help them step out of their comfort zone and embrace new strategies for enhancing creativity.

Watch as these preschoolers engage in a project that takes a balanced approach. There is adult input that invites children to express themselves artistically, make independent decisions, and reflect on the work they created.


Cooking up a little creativity.

In Summary

When it comes to igniting creativity at your program, it's important you articulate your program's philosophical framework. In summary, staff should understand the following:

  • Personal beliefs, while important, may be different than the program's philosophy.
  • Creativity is an important 21st century skill.
  • Creativity is the arts and so much more, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
  • Creative expression manifests itself differently based on children's ages and the activities they are engaged in.
  • It is important to take a balanced approach.


Dedicate a space to showcase “creativity at work” in your program. Then create a template asking staff and families to share when they feel most creative, posting their responses. Make it a permanent display by occasionally changing it to reflect the creative endeavors at your program.


While observing in classrooms, use the information in this lesson to see if staff are taking a balanced approach when it comes to supporting creativity. Depending on the outcome of your observations, develop a plan for providing professional development and coaching to strengthen their skills. 


Philosophical framework:
This is what you believe about something and your approach based on those beliefs
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. There is an emphasis in education today on these subjects in order for the United States to remain competitive in a global economy


Finish this statement: As a manager it is your job to make sure staff realize that creativity…
You are leading a staff in-service about creativity across the ages. An infant-toddler caregiver mentions that infants simply are not creative yet—they are just too young. How do you respond?
True or false? It is not developmentally appropriate to focus on the product in creative experiences.
References & Resources

Althouse, R., Johnson, M. H., & Mitchell, S. T. (2002). The Colors of Learning: Integrating the visual arts into the early childhood curriculum. New York: Teachers College Press.

Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21s)

Head Start National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning. (2013). The Head Start Leaders Guide to Positive Child Outcomes. Retrieved from

Sandall, S., & Schwartz, I. (2008). Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

STEM information: