Cultivating Creativity and Innovation: Environments and Materials
This lesson will highlight the significance of carefully choosing materials and toys to promote children’s creativity in preschool. You will learn about choosing culturally responsive creative materials and choosing materials that address the creative needs of all children.
- List examples of developmentally appropriate materials that promote creativity.
- Define culturally responsive creative materials.
- Discuss materials that address the creative needs of all children.
"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." - Pablo Picasso
When do you feel most creative? Is it when you are alone, or in the presence of others? Perhaps when you are at home, at work, or while driving somewhere? Are there spaces or environments that make you feel creative? Maybe your kitchen or backyard, a coffee shop, or a craft store? What elements of an environment make you feel creative? Is it the lighting? Perhaps music in the background? Colors or textures around you? Scents in the air? Individuals around you engaging in similar types of activities with you? What about experiences and activities? Are there some experiences that you feel bring out your creative side more than others? There are no limits to what can inspire creativity.
Areas of a preschool classroom must be inviting, pleasing, and functional. This encourages focused, creative work and individual expression. Your job is to create spaces that reflect a love for exploration and learning and a respect for children’s work, diverse ideas, individual differences, and cultural diversity. You must also provide a variety of materials. As you learned in Lesson Two, you should encourage different types of creative work on a daily basis. These types of experiences involve using a variety of tools and materials as well.
According to Walter Drew and Baji Rankin in an article in the journal Young Children (2004), “when children have the chance to notice, collect, and sort materials, and when teachers respond to their ideas, the children become artists, designers, and engineers” (p. 5). Think about what you are doing to have an impact on children’s creativity. Do you pay attention to the materials they choose and use? Do you demonstrate curiosity and excitement as you see children manipulate different materials? How willing are you to let children lead the way to their own creative experiences?
Setting the Stage for Creative Experiences: The Environment
Creativity can happen anywhere! A creative environment includes high-quality interest areas within your classroom, or within other spaces throughout your program. These areas should contain developmentally appropriate materials for dramatic play, blocks and other construction materials, materials for science, art, writing, music and movement, or they could involve other experiences that allow children to explore their environment, use their imagination and learn. For more information about developmentally appropriate materials and experiences, you can visit the Learning Environments Course.
High-quality preschool experiences should incorporate creativity throughout. Creative experiences such as art, music, dance, science, dramatic play, or block play do not exist in isolation. On the contrary, they can take place within social studies, literacy, math or other areas. When these experiences are interwoven and varied, they provide opportunities for rich and meaningful learning opportunities in the classroom. Play is at the heart of these experiences. Play-based learning fosters creativity and allows children to connect the process of learning with the process of expressing their knowledge (Gandini, 1992).
As a preschool teacher, you are responsible for developing experiences that are not only play-based, but also centered around the interests of the children. When you respect and value their interests, children are more likely to be invested in their learning and engaged in your classroom- learning experiences. You can learn about children’s interests through observation, conversations with children or family members, and conversations with co-teachers and other school staff.
Materials that Foster Creativity
A variety of carefully chosen materials can foster creativity in children. Think of materials as a language for children (Weisman Topal, and Gandini, 1999). Materials enable children to express themselves, to share what they already know, to demonstrate existing skills, and to learn new skills. Materials should reflect children’s interests, as well as backgrounds, life experiences and cultures. Additionally, materials should encourage different kinds of group or individual work in your classroom. This can involve spontaneous or more directed play.
Materials should be stimulating and novel. They should have different textures, patterns, shapes, weights and colors. A variety of interesting materials can spark children’s creativity: blocks and other building materials, dress up clothes, cars, trucks or trains, arts and crafts materials, music and dance materials, dolls and puppets. Everyday inexpensive items can also foster creativity: empty cartons of all shapes and sizes, straws, fabric pieces, buttons, paper towel tubes, or empty plastic containers. Open-ended materials encourage exploration, discovery, transformation and imaginative play. These materials can become anything the children want them to become!
Drew and Rankin identify seven principles for using open-ended materials in early childhood classrooms:
- Children's spontaneous, creative self-expression increases their sense of competence and well-being now and into adulthood.
- Children extend and deepen their understandings through multiple, hands-on experiences with diverse materials.
- Children's play with peers supports learning and a growing sense of competence.
- Children can learn literacy, science, and mathematics joyfully through active play with diverse, open-ended materials.
- Children learn best in open-ended explorations when teachers help them make connections.
- Teachers are nourished by observing children's joy and learning.
- Ongoing self-reflection among teachers in community is needed to support these practices.
Culturally Responsive Materials
Just as classroom experiences and activities should reflect the backgrounds, cultures, and diverse life experiences of children in your classroom, materials should demonstrate consideration and respect for the diversity of the world children live in. 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 materials and activities each day.
The National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems recommends you think about three dimensions of cultural responsiveness:
- Culture is a blend of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, values and behavior patterns that are shared by racial, ethnic, religious, or social groups of people. How can you encourage creativity that is culturally different from yours?
- Cultural responsiveness is a complex concept involving the acceptance and acknowledgement of other people’s cultures and cultural values. How can you use the creative process to make your program more culturally responsive?
- There are many dimensions of culture including: language, space and proximity, gender roles, family roles, grooming and presence, and value of education. How could changes in cultural values over time influence your views about creativity?
Addressing the Creative Needs of All Learners
Every child demonstrates creativity in a unique way! When it comes to children with developmental disabilities in your classroom, you may have to make adaptations or provide supports that will enable these children to succeed. In general, children with special learning needs may need adaptations to the curriculum, classroom environment, and daily preschool activities. Consider a child with physical disabilities who may have a hard time reaching for art materials or moving during music and movement. Arranging your environment, for example, by changing the location of particular items or moving furniture to facilitate movement, will ensure that this child is able to actively engage in experiences just like his or her peers. A child who is experiencing challenges with attention may have a hard time staying focused during lengthy experiences, and allowing that child to take breaks may enable him or her to be successful. A child who seems to get easily over-stimulated may prefer working with fewer materials and may be more successful during structured experiences.
What are some things you are currently doing to support the creativity of all children in your classroom? Remember the following:
- You should plan your classroom experiences with the needs of all children in mind. Your goal is to make sure every child is valued, successful, and encouraged to express creativity.
- Talk with children’s family members for input on strategies or advice you may be able to use in your classroom. Remember that families know their children best!
- Use children’s backgrounds as inspiration for ideas about creative experiences. When you engage children in experiences that reflect their heritage or cultures, children see themselves in these experiences and their engagement becomes even more meaningful.
Keep in mind that some children may need special supports. Even though many creative experiences should be child-directed, providing ideas, suggestions, or scaffolding to guide children’s thinking is an important strategy to use when supporting creative experiences. Scaffolding involves encouraging children’s creativity rather than stifling it. When you see a child who seems unsure or unwilling or a child who is struggling with an activity, comments or questions like “I wonder what would happen if you used some of these materials to help your dinosaur stand upright,” or “What tools do you think you could use to make the dinosaur stand up?” can positively support their thinking and creativity. Some children may need some help, guidance or modeling when using new or unfamiliar materials.
Engaging Families in Children's Creativity
You can help families of children in your classroom learn about creativity, and you should encourage them to extend the creative work you do in preschool. Ask families of children in your program to donate household items they no longer use or items they plan to recycle for use in your classroom experiences. This enables families to be engaged and feel connected with their children’s work. Include information about creative activities on your classroom bulletin board, in class newsletters, or in other forms of communication with them.
Lesson Four (Fostering Creativity: The Preschool Teacher) will provide additional ideas as well as resources on how to engage with families of children in your classroom and program about creativity.
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 you 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, give children the chance to create a nameplate with their name and the title of their piece. This will show that you value their work and allow them to feel proud of their creative accomplishment.
A variety of carefully chosen materials can foster creativity in children. Watch this video to learn how materials promote creative expression in preschool.
As a preschool teacher, consider the following when thinking how materials spark creativity:
- Give all children access to materials that promote creative expression.
- Be responsive to children's individual differences and family backgrounds.
- The organization and cleanliness of classroom areas and materials reflects your respect for children’s work. You can demonstrate this respect by carefully arranging materials. You should display materials labeled, in working order, and at the children’s eye level.
- Strive to create beautiful spaces for you and children to be inspired. Then encourage children to express their creativity within those spaces. Frame children’s artwork and display their creations in ways that showcase what they have been learning and exploring. Showcase children’s work in school hallways, offices and other spaces. Invite colleagues, other children, and families to view these creations.
- Surprise children by introducing them to new and unfamiliar materials.
- Rotate and introduce new materials regularly.
- Be creative and think outside the box when choosing materials! Empty cardboard boxes or plastic containers can be transformed to construction or building materials, spaceships, mailboxes, restaurant tables, robots, or anything else children can think of! Consider modeling innovative uses of these materials (e.g., using empty containers as musical instruments, using empty tissue boxes as building blocks).
- Consider partnering with local museums, theaters, dance groups, or other organizations that foster and promote creative work. These can broaden the creative possibilities for children in your care.
What materials do you provide for children to engage in experiences that promote creative expression? In the Explore Section of Lesson Two, you were asked to reflect on experiences you provide that spark children’s creativity. In this lesson, you are asked to do the same, but focusing on materials rather than activities. Download and print the Reflecting on My Classroom Materials activity. For each box, list or describe materials you provide that spark children’s creativity and jot down ideas about additional materials you can use. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.
According to leading researchers on play at the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University, “basic is best” when it comes to young children’s toys and materials. Each year, the Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination (TIMPANI) study examines how young children engage with toys and identifies toys that promote high-quality imaginative play in preschool children. Click on the link below to watch a video about the TIMPANI toy study. As you hear preschool teachers share reflections about purposefully choosing toys for creative classroom play, think about the ways you make choices about classroom toys and materials. Use the attached Materials that Promote Creativity document to learn more about this study and for suggestions of preschool creative materials.
|Cultural responsiveness||The recognition and acknowledgement that society is pluralistic. In addition to the dominant culture, there exist many other cultures based around ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography, religion, gender, and class. (National Center for Culturally Responsive Education Systems, 2005, p. 13)|
|Open-ended materials||Materials that encourage exploration, discovery, transformation, and imaginative play; these materials can become anything the children want them to become|
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Gay, G. (2010). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, research, & practice (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
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Curtis, D. & Carter, M. (2003). Designs for Living and Learning: Transforming early childhood environments. St Paul, MN: Red Leaf Press
National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems. (2005). Module 1: Understanding Culture and Cultural Responsiveness. Retrieved from http://www.nccrest.org/culture1/Culture_Acad1_Handouts.pdf?v_document_name=Culture%20Acad1%20Handouts
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