Why Kids are Fearlessly Creative (And How We Can be That Way)

Lately, we’ve been using a kid-sized easel my youngest son received from his grandparents for his birthday to play a family guessing game before bed. You can either write a phrase (a la Hangman), or draw something (a la Pictionary).

Four-year-old Judah isn’t reading yet. So, when he holds the marker, he opts for drawing. What emerges on the whiteboard is some sort of cross between a Rorschach inkblot and abstract art.

We start guessing …

A star? No. A starfish? No again. A campfire? Not it. A guy with a mohawk? Guess again. A porcupine? Nope. A stegosaurus? Oh! That one got a reaction. We might be getting close.

Turns out — it was a dinosaur’s footprint. And a pretty good one, too. Judah isn’t ashamed of his drawing skills or offended that no one could guess what it was. In fact, he’s proud to have stumped us.

If you’ve spent any time with kids between the ages of two and five, you’ve probably seen plenty of adorable artwork, heard some silly stories, and answered quite a few inquisitive questions. Of course, they love the praise, the laughter, and hearing interesting answers — but kids would still make art, tell stories, and ask questions without our encouragement.

They don’t need us to be curious and and artistic. They don’t hold back. When it comes to creativity, kids are fearless. Why is that? What makes kids so creative?

1. Kids enjoy the creative process more than the results

Have you ever watched a kid build a block tower and immediately knock it down? Destruction is part of their creative process. It provides the opportunity to start fresh and create something new.

For most kids, the journey is the reward. There’s nothing more enticing than a black piece of paper, a can of fresh Play-Doh, or a pile of unstacked blocks.

In his book Keep Going, author Austin Kleon describes how he noticed his young son enjoying the act of creating art much more than the finished products. His two-year-old pumped out drawing after drawing without care for the tools or the canvas. It didn’t matter if his parents erased them, saved them, or threw them out. The kid just wanted to draw.

Then one day, he “put his parents’ encouragement to the test” when he scribbled skeletons on cushions for their outdoor furniture.

Via Austin Kleon’s blog

“The drawings were so good, my wife decided to embroider them. Again, he was completely indifferent.”

Austin Kleon, Keep Going

2. Kids keep it simple, and simple is beautiful

Kids don’t need much to spark their imagination: an empty cardboard box becomes a spaceship or a time machine, sticks are used for magic wants and sword fighting, blankets and chairs become forts.

Phenomenally creative people also realize the beauty of simplicity.

When jazz legend Miles Davis set out to record his groundbreaking masterpiece, Kind of Blue, it was in response to music he felt was too complicated. “The music has gotten thick,” he said. “Guys give me songs and they’re full of chords.” Kind of Blue is renowned for, as pianist Bill Evans wrote in the album’s liner notes, its “exquisite simplicity.”

A 2015 article from The Guardian states “Simplicity is the key to creativity.” And, we’ve all heard the saying, “less is more.” But simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy, nor does it mean shallow.

Those scribbles and sketches of people with giant egg-shaped heads, stick arms, and no bodies may have more to them than you think. It was once assumed that young kids were still learning to interpret and represent objects realistically with pen and paper, but that may not be entirely true. In an article for The Atlantic, Isabel Fattal writes:

“While observers tend to agree that there’s a stage at which most children strive for realistic depiction in their drawing, many psychologists argue that at their earlier stages of drawing, children aren’t thinking about realism.”

Isabel Fattal, The Atlantic, 2017

In fact, there’s a reason why modern abstract art often looks similar to what you see hanging in preschool classrooms. Fattal says some of those artists are trying to achieve that same childlike look. Psychology professor Ellen Winner told Fattal that kids are often expressing action in their artwork (like a speeding car), and it’s important to understand that “children’s art has its own logic.”

A few Steinbrinck boy originals

3. Kids have super-powered imaginations

When I was a kid, I can remember spending a lot of time creating imaginary worlds both by myself and with friends. When we played Legos, we made up recurring characters with their own theme songs, mixed in other types of toys, and had multiple plot lines going at once featuring romance, violence, and tragedy.

Developmental psychologist Stephanie M. Carlson says children spend as much as 2/3 of their time in non-reality. According to Psychology Today, there’s plenty of research demonstrating how pretend play is critical to cognitive and social development. The benefits include better use of language and the realization that others have separate thoughts or hold differing beliefs.

Those who can hang on to the power of their imaginations end up excelling at problem solving and innovation in their lives and careers. That’s because a good imagination encourages divergent thinking — or the ability to explore multiple solutions in a non-linear manner.

4. Kids ask lots of questions

Because young children don’t know what’s impossible, they believe that practically anything is possible. Not knowing opens up a world of possibilities.

Many parents and caretakers are familiar with the ongoing loop of Why? questions from curious little kids. It can seem like they’re purposefully trying to get our goats, but that’s not what recent research reveals. According to LiveScience.com, findings published in the journal Child Development indicate kids really are trying to get to the truth. They want explanations and they’ll ask plenty of follow-ups if your answer doesn’t suffice.

Want to turn those questions on their heads? Try asking your kids what they think:

“Why do we have belly buttons?”
“Why do you think we have belly buttons?”

You’re bound to get some very creative answers. That’s because imaginative kids are also masters of asking What if? questions. The greatest inventors, innovators, and business leaders of our time also had the curiosity and imagination to ask what if. As leadership consultant and author Mike Myatt wrote for Forbes.com:

“What if Larry Page and Sergey Brin [founders of Google] didn’t ask what if search could be more simple and relevant? What if Steve Jobs failed to ask what if you combined technology and design to create the ultimate customer experience? What if Richard Branson didn’t ask what if about almost everything? Real leaders are open to the possibility that most things not only can, but should be improved upon.”

Mike Myatt, Forbes.com, 2013

5. Kids play hard and take risks

One summer, my wife was forced to remove the safety net from our trampoline after it ripped. Our two older sons and a group of neighborhood friends lugged it across the yard next to the treehouse and covered the bounce pad with blankets and throw pillows.

You can probably guess what happened next.

Risky play is another important aspect of childhood development. Peter Gray of Boston College wrote for Psychology Today that children are good at knowing their own limits — both physically and emotionally. Ultimately, he thinks certain types of risky childhood behaviors help kids gain confidence and face fear.

“In risky play, youngsters dose themselves with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping their heads and behaving adaptively while experiencing that fear. They learn that they can manage their fear, overcome it, and come out alive.”

Peter Gray, Ph.D., Psychology Today, 2014

Kids also take plenty of creative risks. Because they’re more interested in the process than the product or the praise — they’re willing to color outside the lines, make mistakes, and mix things up.

Play was described by Maria Montessori as the work of children. Stuart Brown, the director of the National Institute for Play and author of a book on how play shapes us thinks it is important to all of us.

“Play is the stick that stirs the drink. It is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder—in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization.”

Stuart Brown, Ph.D., Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

“To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition.” ~ Albert Einstein

Pablo Picasso

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” ~ Pablo Picasso

How can we be as creative as little kids?

Where does all that creativity and imagination go? Somewhere along the line, we lose it.

We get unnecessary negative feedback from adults. Other kids make fun of us. The joy of creating is replaced with rules, requirements, and forced practicing. Our inner critic grows until we become fearful instead of fearless.

If we want to bring imagination and creativity back into our lives, let’s consider the lessons we can learn from kids:

  1. Enjoy the process: Don’t do it for attention. Don’t only do it for what you get in the end. Do it because it’s fun.
  2. Simplify: Don’t overcomplicate the process. Make your life, your home, and your work simpler to make time and space for creativity.
  3. Let your imagination run wild: Spend some time in your head dreaming up possibilities (and impossibilities).
  4. Ask more questions: Question everything and come up with new ideas by asking Why? and What if?
  5. Take more risks: Don’t break your neck jumping out of trees. Do have the courage to try new things and put your creative ideas out into the wild.
  6. Find time for play: Get down on the floor with your kids, grandkids, or nephews and nieces. Discover the creativity of kids firsthand, and find out what some fun could do for you.

The good news is — hope is not lost. No matter your age, you still have the capacity to be as creative as you were when you were a kid … maybe even more. In her TEDx talk on creativity (see below), Elisabeth McClure from the LEGO Foundation explains that creative thinking requires divergent thinking (exploring a variety of possibilities) as well as convergent thinking (applying logic and identifying the best solution).

Tapping into your childhood creativity could lead to big things …

In 1905, when Frank Epperson he was 11 years old, he mixed some flavored powder with soda water and accidentally left his drink out on the porch in the cold of winter. When he found it the next day, he discovered he’d made a delicious treat.

However, it took another 18 years for Epperson to start selling them and file for a patent on what he’d eventually call “Popsicles.” It also took the divergent thinking of Frank’s 11-year-old self and the convergent thinking of Frank as a 29-year-old to combine right- and left-brained thinking into a truly creative idea.

Kids and The Creative Mission

Our vision for The Creative Mission is to encourage adults, teens, and kids to create together side-by-side. Imagine what could happen!

Young people will help the rest of us get in touch with our own creative sides. The rest of us will be able to instill confidence in kids, helping them hang on to their super-powered imaginations, curious minds, and fearless artistry as they grow up.

Ultimately, we want The Creative Mission to show people of all ages how to enjoy the creative process and share the amazing results with the world. I believe that a key part of being able to do that is connected to understanding how to act a little more like a little kid.

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 18:3 (NIV)

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