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Cultivating Creativity and Innovation: Experiences and Activities

In the previous lesson, you learned about materials and environments that promote creativity. In this lesson, you will learn about the importance of experiences and activities. Children learn through interactions, so interactions are a critical way to promote creativity. You will learn about the distinction between process and product and you will learn how to help staff members plan creative experiences. 

  • Help staff members offer experiences, activities, and interactions that promote creativity.
  • Help staff distinguish between process and product.
  • Brainstorm ways to meet the creative needs of all learners.
  • Observe and provide feedback to staff members about creative experiences, activities, and interactions.



"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

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.

Helping Staff Promote Creativity Indoors and Outdoors

The experiences that staff members provide indoors and outdoors have an impact on creativity. Encourage staff members to think about creativity on two levels: experiences and interactions.


What kinds of experiences do staff members plan for children? Are there open-ended opportunities for children to express themselves in a variety of ways? Remember, creativity is more than art. Consider these experiences as you review activity plans or observe in classrooms:

Creative Experiences


Are there opportunities for children to take on a variety of roles and engage in pretend play? This is important from toddlerhood through the school-age years. Children should have the opportunity to use and create costumes, props, and materials in their play. Younger children may begin by acting out home themes in the dramatic play kitchen. Older children may put on skits, comedy shows, plays or dramas based on stories with which they are familiar. Staff should encourage children to imagine, pretend, and take on roles. Children should also be encouraged to brainstorm ways to create new worlds or scenarios for play. Encourage staff members to get involved when appropriate.

Are there opportunities for children to create physical representations of the world around them — or completely new worlds? Construction allows children to exercise their creativity in a variety of ways while also exploring concepts in physics, mathematics and statistics. The materials that children use are vitally important in construction, but equally important are the time, opportunity, and encouragement that staff members provide. Encourage staff members to think creatively about construction in their activity plans. They can go beyond simple unit blocks. Natural materials like slices of wood, stones or bark can add to construction experiences indoors and outdoors. Also encourage staff members to think about construction experiences that can spark excitement and curiosity for the children: Can they build a structure that people can go inside and that lasts for several days? Can they build a machine that works? Can they help design and build something that solves a problem for the program (like a ramp or drainage system on the playground)?

Creativity is the hallmark of science. Encourage staff members to think of ways to help children understand and capture the wonder of science. Encourage them to try true experiments (ones in which the adult does not know the outcome). Make sure staff members maintain safety as a top priority, but encourage them to let children’s questions guide discovery.

Every child is an artist. Art experiences allow children to express themselves. Make sure staff members understand the importance of open-ended art experiences (see process vs. product later in this lesson). There is a place for art experiences with a clear outcome: for example, performing a piano solo. But there must also be opportunities for open-ended experimentation across media (paint, sculpture, music, etc.). Help staff members know how to interact with children around art. Encourage them to make positive, descriptive comments about art (“You used three shades of blue in the sky”) rather than praise (“Good job painting that picture”). This supports motivation and removes evaluation from creative work.

New sensations spark curiosity and creativity. It can be liberating for children to get their hands dirty! Make sure staff members understand the importance of sensory experiences. Look for staff members to provide a variety of experiences that go beyond a simple sand or water table. Encourage staff members to engage all the senses: Talk about smell during cooking activities; talk about texture while children touch mulch, grass, or sand; provide opportunities to taste new foods; encourage children to lay on the ground with their eyes closed and listen to the sounds around them. When possible, encourage staff members to plan field trips that incorporate sensory experiences. Trips to parks or nature preserves expose children to new sights, smells, sounds, and sensations.

Encourage staff members to think creatively about writing experiences in school-age programs. Brainstorm with staff members about experiences that model a range of creative writing experiences: comic strips, cartoons, advertisements, blogs, songs, raps or brochures.

Help staff members make music a part of their programs. From infancy through the school-age years, music is an important part of many children’s lives. Encourage staff members to provide opportunities for children to make up songs, tunes or lyrics. Help staff members find interesting instruments or materials to share. Instruments from a variety of cultures can add to children’s experiences. Objects like record players might be novel to the children and spark interest and curiosity in music.

Your program may invite local storytellers, artists, musicians, writers, or scientists to share their creativity with children, families and staff.


Staff members also promote creativity through the day-to-day interactions they have with children. Simple things like asking questions, providing ideas, and modeling problem-solving can help children maximize their creativity. Look for staff members to:

Ask open-ended questions

At all age levels, you want to see staff members sitting on eye level with children and engaging in shared interactions. Encourage staff members to promote critical thinking by asking questions like “Why?,” “How?” and “What will happen?” Remember to help staff members ask questions out of honest curiosity. They shouldn’t always know the answer to a question before they ask it. Children can tell the difference between an adult who is curious and an adult who is testing them.

Offer ideas or suggestions

Adults should feel comfortable balancing curiosity and contributions. While many creative experiences should be child-directed, it is OK for an adult to occasionally offer support or scaffolding. A simple comment or question like, “I wonder what would happen if you started the ball a little higher on the ramp” can support a child’s thinking. Some children might need support using new or unfamiliar materials. Adults can also offer ideas and model innovative uses of materials: recycling a metal bin into a drum, using a piece of fabric as a table cloth, etc

Model problem-solving

One aspect of creativity is the ability to solve problems. Adults can and should take a problem-solving approach to interactions in their programs. Again, open-ended questions can help model problem-solving: “What could you try first?,” “How might you …?” and “What will you need?” are all good prompts (Head Start, 2013).

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).

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.

Children need a balance between skill-based, product-oriented experiences and more open-ended, process-oriented experiences. You must work with staff to help them understand when each type of experience is appropriate. The decision rests in the goal of the activity. If the goal is creative expression, it would be inappropriate to ask all children to create an identical flower out of modeling clay. If the goal is to replicate a specific technique that is needed for further skill building, then this activity might be appropriate.

Listen as this program director discusses the distinction between process- and product-oriented experiences in her program.

Creativity: Process and Product

Listen as a program leader discusses creative experiences.


Responding to Activity Plans

Aside from direct observation, weekly activity plans are one of your primary ways of discovering what happens in classrooms and programs. These plans help you gauge the extent to which staff members understand and promote creative experiences. You will likely see activity plans that vary in quality across staff members. How you respond helps model a creative, problem-solving approach. Consider this example:

Fern is a training and curriculum specialist in a school-age program. Andy turned in his activity plans for next week, and Fern noticed that there were several closed-ended art activities listed. Students were going to Internet templates to create Mother’s Day cards, and they were going to use store-bought kits to create identical flower pots. There were no open-ended activities available to the children.
Fern has several options for responding. Think about these possible actions and what they would model for staff members. While the sample responses are not exclusive to creative experiences, think about the impact they might have on staff creativity:


What It Models

Fern crosses off the two art activities. She adds a piece of paper with new activities that Andy should do instead.

This models an authoritative approach to planning. This does not provide any opportunity for problem-solving or creative thinking on Andy’s part. He might get frustrated or upset by the changes, but he might not understand why the changes were made.

Fern approves the activity plan and says nothing.

This sends the message that “cookie cutter” activities are always appropriate, and it is OK to eliminate open-ended activities.

Fern talks with Andy about his plans at their next meeting. If the activity is planned before their next meeting, she schedules a time to chat with him about his goals for the activities.

This provides opportunities for discussion and brainstorming. It models a problem-solving, collaborative approach.

Reviewing Documentation and Evidence of Learning

Sometimes staff members struggle with documenting the learning that occurs in creative experiences. When you are in classrooms, notice instances when children are engaged in learning and creativity. Point these out to staff members and encourage staff members to record these experiences in anecdotal records, portfolios, or other record-keeping systems. You might need to model these behaviors. If a child builds an elaborate structure, take a picture and give it to the teacher with a note saying that it would be a great addition to the portfolio.


In contrast to some other lessons in this course in which we have examined a range of experiences, let’s take a look at one exemplary creative experience. Remember, this is a thought exercise based on an experience for young children, but it is relevant to other age groups as well. You will need to think about how the concepts might apply to infants, toddlers or school-age children. As you watch the video, see if you can recognize the features of this creative experience that enriched learning for the children and made it successful. Which of those features make sense in your program?

Creativity across the Curriculum: A Fairy Garden

Watch how one program encouraged sustained creativity and learning.

Now that you have watched the video, take a few minutes to reflect and answer these questions.

  • What features of the activity promoted creativity?

    This activity promoted creativity in several important ways:

    1. It was sparked by the children’s interests. In your own program, staff might not choose to do a project on fairies. In this particular classroom, this was something the children were very interested in and that offered an opportunity for deep engagement in different ways.
    2. There were many different outlets for creativity. The children got to draw, build, dig, dance, eat, and view art.
    3. Activities were open-ended. Activities had loose parameters and children were able to use their own imaginations to build fairy houses or traps.
    4. Adults asked open-ended questions. Throughout the project, staff members and volunteers gathered input from the children. They made sure children guided their own creations, and they asked questions that helped push children’s thinking and creating.
    5. It crossed curriculum areas. Children explored social studies while thinking about houses. They explored science while planting fruits and herbs. They explored literacy while labeling their creations and reading about fairies. They explored music and movement through dance. They explored math while exploring shapes and concepts of size.
    6. There were interesting and novel materials. Children got to experience and touch materials that are not always part of their classroom: dirt, moss, stones, plants, crystals, etc.
  • How did the classroom involve the community?

    The classroom team invited in volunteers from the local art museum. The volunteers visited the classroom regularly over the course of a two- week period and met regularly with the teaching team. The volunteers felt very welcomed. They learned children’s names and were leaders in the creative process.

    The children also had the opportunity to visit the local art museum and to experience art in a personalized way.

  • How did children show what they had learned?

    Children created individualized materials. They built fairy houses, they planted a garden, they created miniature fairy ornaments, they labeled materials, and they researched and planned parties.


Since you spend time in classrooms and programs on a regular basis, you have an opportunity to observe staff members as they promote creativity throughout the day. You can watch for formal and spontaneous opportunities to nurture creativity. Use the Observing Creativity form to guide your observations.


Use the Resources about Creativity guide for articles and other resources that can be helpful to share with staff members, administrators, or families.


An experience that does not have a right or wrong answer and allows creative freedom
To provide just enough assistance on a challenging task to allow a child to do something he or she would not be able to do otherwise


A new parent in your program asks how your staff encourages creativity in children. You respond by saying …
Finish this statement: As a trainer, supervisor or coach, an important way to know whether your staff understands and encourages creative experiences is …
Which of the following is not an example of creative experience for children?
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.

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

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

Malaguzzi, L. (1987). The Hundred Languages of Children (I cento linguaggi dei bambini), exhibition catalog (16-21).

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

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