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Cultivating Creativity and Innovation: Environments and Materials

Spaces and materials are powerful drivers of creativity. As a manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that staff members work in environments that are well organized with a variety of materials that are intentionally selected to promote creativity. You will learn about ways to help staff members cultivate creativity and innovation in the children and youth they serve.

  • Identify the ways communication and environments contribute to enhanced creativity and innovation.
  • Recognize the different ways materials can be used to promote creativity.
  • Reflect on utilizing families and community partners to introduce children, youth, and staff to unique experiences and ways of thinking.



When do you feel most creative? Is it indoors or outdoors? When you are alone or with others? While the answers to these questions will vary from person to person, there are elements that make environments more conducive to creativity. Corporations understand this: There is science behind the colors that are used on walls, the arrangement of furniture, and the way employees are organized. Experts know creative environments lead to more creative employees, which increases productivity. For a manager of a child and youth program, having more creative staff can lead to more creative children and youth.

As a manager, you have many resources in this lesson at your disposal to cultivate creativity. As you have learned in other courses, you set the tone for your program. If staff members see you excited about learning new things with a willingness to embrace novel ways of doing things, they are more likely to do the same.


Have you ever been really proud of something only to have that feeling of accomplishment fade as a result of someone’s comment or glance of disapproval? The words you use, the ways you communicate them, and the items that get displayed in your program send powerful messages as to what you value. Communication is very important in your work and the ways you can promote creativity. When it comes to communicating and creativity, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • People can tell when you are genuine. If you do not believe it, do not say it.
  • Be cognizant of your body language, especially facial expressions.
  • When observing in classrooms, ask open-ended questions of both children and staff to better understand what they were thinking when they were creating.
  • Spend time at staff meetings asking staff to share the creative experiences happening in their classrooms.
  • Share all of the creativity happening at your program by putting it on display and including it in your family newsletter.
  • Get excited about what's happening at your program and others will too.

Using and Reconfiguring Space

As a kid, did you ever turn your living room into a fort or create a reading nook off your kitchen? If so, then you used the environment to meet your needs. Environments are so important to all aspects of your work that there is an entire course dedicated to this topic. When it comes to using and reconfiguring space to cultivate creativity, here are a few things to keep in mind for your program:

  • Be open to using space in new ways.
  • Create inviting spaces where children can connect with each other.
  • Take the indoors outdoors.
  • Encourage space to be used for long-term projects.
  • Create interest areas outside of the classrooms giving children the opportunity to explore new surroundings for hands-on activities.
  • Start a reading circle to learn more about the Reggio Emilia and Montessori approaches; both of which place great emphasis on the environment and its connection to development and learning.

Space Matters

Using space and materials intentionally.

Materials that Promote Creativity

Creativity gives children a chance to think of the world not just as it is, but as it could be. When your program provides children with interesting spaces and materials, you are giving them the tools to create and to understand the world around them. You might think an empty cardboard box is ready for the recycling bin, but to a child that box can become a house, a submarine, a spaceship, or any number of fascinating places.

Think about the spaces and materials that inspire you in your own creativity. Perhaps you enjoy looking at websites like Pinterest and imagining ways to create new things, design your home, or organize your life. Perhaps walking through the craft store makes you excited about creating homemade greeting cards. Perhaps the home improvement store makes you envision all the renovations or woodworking projects you could do. Part of what makes these experiences inspiring is the variety, novelty, and beauty of the materials. You have choices, and your mind begins to play with all the options available to you. When spaces and materials are organized well, they inspire without overwhelming. Children are similarly inspired. You should support staff members in considering the materials they choose.

When it comes to choosing materials to cultivate creativity, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Invite families to share art, music, foods and celebrations that are meaningful to them.
  • Be inclusive of cultures when choosing learning materials, particularly cultures represented in your program. Be cognizant that there are some items that may have cultural implications. For example, some cultures might frown upon using food items for play, such as putting dried beans in a sensory table.
  • Purchase items that can be explored, transformed, and combined in novel ways.
  • Suggest a common item, such as a potato masher, and ask everyone in the program to give creative uses for the item. Post the responses for everyone to see.

For more in-depth information on materials for each age group, refer to the direct-care tracks in this course.

Variety of materials

To spark creativity, children need a variety of interesting materials. Inexpensive, everyday objects can inspire creativity: buttons, thread spools, pinecones, PVC tubes, wood blocks, fabric samples. Work with staff members to think creatively about materials they already have. Families may also be willing to donate simple recyclables like milk caps, laundry detergent lids, paper towel tubes, or empty boxes. In a child’s eyes, a box of milk caps can transform into a spaceship, jewelry, or a whole new world of their own creation. Materials and tools for art expression can include an assortment of crayons, play dough, yarn, markers, paintbrushes, scissors, glue, colored pencils, pens, and paper in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. Include paper punches, staplers and tape dispensers for older children. It is essential that children are able to choose from a variety of materials to learn what media work best to express their ideas.

Novelty of materials

Remember the old saying, “Variety is the spice of life.” Something new promotes interesting questions. Support staff members in discovering new materials that children have not used before. Perhaps you have an old overhead projector or a record player. Let children imagine what the items are and what they are used for. Encourage families to lend interesting items from their homes or workplaces, such as snorkeling flippers or a unique tool from the kitchen. These items can all be sources of wonder for children. Look at your world through a child’s eyes. At the most basic level, novelty of materials also means rotating and introducing new materials regularly. This can mean different colors of paint, adding something textural to paint to change its properties, and more. It can also mean bringing in interesting scrap papers, magazine clippings, or found materials. Materials should be familiar yet challenging; they should present increasing challenges as children grow and develop.

Beauty of materials

Beauty can be inspiring (DeViney & Duncan, 2010). This is true for adults and children. Help staff members create peaceful, home-like spaces, then encourage them to help children express their creativity within the spaces. Try framing children’s artwork in an attractive way, for example you might create a gallery of creations in a school-age program or preschool. Also help staff members consider the joy children find by exploring the interactions between objects like prisms, mirrors, color paddles, and natural materials.

Cultural relevance of materials

You must also help staff members consider the cultural relevance and cultural responsiveness of creative experiences. Let us take a moment to think about the phrase “culturally responsive creative materials.” What does that mean? Culturally responsive materials are those that help children see themselves and their families. Culturally responsive creative materials are materials that appeal to all learners from all cultures. Children should be able to see themselves, their families, their homes, and their communities in some materials each day. This does not mean that staff members must fill their classrooms with representative items from every culture. What it does mean is that staff members should provide a wide variety of open-ended materials. Open-ended materials are objects that can be used in a variety of ways: beads, strings, wires, tissue paper, fabric samples, tiles, etc. These open-ended materials might be items that come from children’s homes that can be recycled in creative ways, like detergent caps becoming building materials, lids or tabs becoming accessories for jewelry, and blankets becoming a fort or tent. Staff members should also be on the lookout for creative cultural experiences: perhaps a parent plays the sitar and offers to give a demonstration, a family weaves and will teach the group a simple project, or a family leads a cooking demonstration.

Displaying Art Work

Displaying art is a way to allow children to share their creative work. There are many benefits to displaying art work such as:

  • It enriches the environment and provides ownership for the children.
  • It gives children a sense of pride and confidence.
  • It encourages and inspires children to be creative.
  • It challenges children to do their best.

There are many ways staff can display children’s work throughout the learning environment. A few examples are:

  • Use a wall or bulletin board to display work.
  • Hang pieces throughout the environment with rope or ribbon and clothespins.
  • Frame pieces of art and hang them on the wall — consider rotating pieces out so all children have a chance to be featured.
  • Use shelving or tables to display three-dimensional items, such as sculptures or pottery.

When displaying work, remind staff to give children the chance to create a nameplate with their name and the title of their piece. This will show that they value their work and allow them to feel proud of their creative accomplishment.

Community Partnerships

Utilizing community partnerships is a great way to cultivate creativity at your program. It is fun to learn from others who have a passion or expertise in something we don't. There are many ways to use community partnerships to cultivate creativity; here are a few ideas:

  • Look at arts organizations in your area. Many arts organizations have outreach programs designed for children and youth.
  • Invite guest speakers to share their expertise on topics related to children and youth interests. Local universities and the Internet can be an easy way to locate experts in a particular field.
  • Ask businesses in the community to donate items that can be creatively recycled at your program.
  • Field trips to common places such as grocery stores can sometime lead to uncommon discoveries.

Engaging Families

One of the best ways to engage families at your program is to acknowledge something "awesome" you saw their children do. When you and your staff members say to a child who is within earshot of their family that you liked the choice of colors they used on their picture; their family will too. Here are a few ideas for engaging families in the creative process:

  • Provide a training for families on how to support creativity in their children.
  • Develop a series of "Make-n-Take" workshops where families can get creative with their children.
  • Enlist the support of families to help with long-term projects. There is a lot of expertise right there in your program.
  • Use a survey to find out your families' interests and then sponsor a Creative Fair with workshops for families based on the survey responses.

In Summary

Michelangelo the famous artist once said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." As a manager you want children and youth to set free their ideas. Staff who encourage children and youth to try new things, take their ideas seriously, and applaud their efforts unleash creativity and innovation for life.

The following video demonstrates the power of an integrated curricular approach for cultivating and sustaining creativity. The video is approximately 12 minutes and follows a group of preschool children over the course of several weeks. It is both enjoyable and informative and reaffirms the difference high-quality experiences have in the lives of children and youth.

The Fairy Garden Project

Creativity Unleashed!


During your next staff meeting, ask if there are staff members who would be willing to help put together a Creative Resource Guide for the program. Try to include a variety of staff that serve different age groups in this project to ensure age-appropriate resources are included. The Creative Resource Guide could be organized by themes. Consider gardening as an example. This section could identify contact information for guest speakers, relevant websites, and organizations willing to donate items related to gardening. This is a great way to involve staff members in a creative endeavor.


Creating an evaluation rubric for teachers to use when requesting classroom materials is a great way to help them be intentional in their choices. You may already have a way to evaluate the appropriateness of classroom materials. If you do perhaps this information can be supplemental; if not then perhaps it will be useful in your efforts. Here are a few criteria to keep in mind when purchasing materials to cultivate creativity:

  • Is the item appealing and interesting to children and youth?
  • Can the item be used in a variety of ways?
  • Is there a right way and a wrong way to use the item?
  • Could the item be repurposed when it is no longer needed?
  • Does the item help children to learn?
  • Is there enough quantity so children can create what they want when they want?
  • Does the item reflect the cultures of the families the classroom serves, as well as opportunities to explore other cultures?


True or False? Your communication style as a manager affects the creativity of staff and children.
Which of the following strategies should staff consider when selecting materials to spark creativity?
You are doing a walk-through of your program space at pick-up time and you notice a school-age child walking with her parent and carrying a collage she created. How do you respond?
References & Resources

Althouse, R., Johnson, M. H., & Mitchell, S. T. (2003). The Colors of Learning: Integrating the visual arts into the early childhood curriculum (Vol. 85). New York: Teachers College Press.

Beghetto, R. A., & Kaufman, J. C. (Eds.). (2010). Nurturing Creativity in the Classroom. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Bentley, D. F. (2013). Everyday Artists: Inquiry and Creativity in the Early Childhood Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cropley, A. J. (2001). Creativity in Education and Learning: A guide for teachers and educators. New York: Psychology Press.

DeViney, J., & Duncan, S. (2010). Inspiring Spaces for Young Children. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House.

Helm, J. H., & Katz, L. G. (2011). Young Investigators: The project approach in the early years. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kaufman, J. C. (Ed.). (2009). Creativity 101. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Malaguzzi, L. (1987). The hundred languages of children. The hundred languages of children (I cento linguaggi dei bambini. Exhibition catalogue) (16-21).

Sellman, E. (Ed.). (2011). Creative Learning for Inclusion: Creating Learning To Meet Special Needs In The Classroom. London: Routledge.

Zevin, J. (2013). Creative Teaching for All: In the Box, Out of the Box, and Off the Walls. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.