Approaches to Learning
Promoting Creativity
Core Finding: AL-CRE-C01

Creativity is important as it facilitates children's development in many domains. Studies have shown that children can display creative thinking from as young as one year old. Promoting divergent thinking and imagination helps develop their creativity. Children’s creativity and divergent thinking in early childhood predicts future creative achievements and careers up to fifty years later.


What is creativity, and why is it important in child development and learning? Creativity arises from any human activity that produces something new.

Vygotsky believed that creativity exists in all people, including very young children.

Children's creativity is behaviour that is spontaneous and self-expressive.

Young children demonstrate the ability to use creativity, inventiveness and imagination to improve their understanding and knowledge of the world.

A creative child develops in other domains. What is important in any creative act is the process of self-expression. Creativity supports children's emotional development because creative expression helps children express and cope with their feelings. It also supports language development because creative expression requires the use of new vocabulary and language expression.

Creativity promotes social development because a creative expression is sometimes a social act done with others and sometimes requires others to pay attention and look at them, for example, in a performance. It also facilitates physical development as children develop fine and gross motor skills when they are expressing themselves creatively through play, art and problem-solving.

Children's creativity also involves cognitive processes that develop through social interactions, play and imagination. Creative thinking is a transformative activity that leads to new ways of thinking and doing or is useful for children's interactions with others.

Studies have found that children with higher levels of creativity accomplish tasks in novel ways than less creative children, and creative children generate more viable solutions to problems.
  1. Torrance, E. P. (1981). Thinking Creatively in Action and Movement. Bensenville, IL: Scholastic Testing Service.

A longitudinal research study in the USA following respondents over 50 years indicated a significant positive relationship between creative thinking, and personal and professional accomplishments. This research underscored the value of divergent or "out of the box" thinking, and the importance of adults modelling that thinking and encouraging it in children.2 The capacity to think divergently early in life may be essential for individuals to contribute important, influential ideas to society later on, as adults.

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  1. Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The four C model of creativity. Review of General Psychology, 13(1), 1–12.

  2. Hoicka, E., Mowat, R., Kirkwood, J., Kerr, T., Carberry, M., & Bijvoet-van den Berg, S. (2016). One-Year-Olds Think Creatively, Just Like Their Parents. Child Development, 87(4), 1099–1105.

Creativity is expressed differently at different stages of development. Young infants observe the world around them and can direct attention to look at and process colours, sounds and movement. How they integrate these various experiences will influence their growth and development across many areas, including creativity. As they grow and their motor and cognitive skills develop, children become more purposeful when engaging with their environment. Around one year of age, children become more creative in how they interact with people and objects.

Towards the end of the first year, the first sparks of the child's imagination appear. Imagination is an integral part of creativity through its ability to support the production of new combinations of pre-constructed things.1 When imagination first kicks in, it paves the way for imitation. At first, infants' attempts at imitation are simple. They imitate concrete actions which they see around them, such as speaking on the phone and combing hair. Imitation skills gradually become symbolic as they use things around them to represent something else, for example, using a box as a pretend telephone. This sparks more creative play, creative problem solving, and cognitive development.

When children develop symbolic thought at around 18-20 months, their play becomes increasingly creative and inventive. Children's developing language and motor abilities at this stage also provide new ways to explore creativity.

Between two to three years old, children's play becomes more social, and they assign roles to each other. The type of symbolic play that children engage in relates to their level of creativity and ability to connect with others.

Children use language to pretend, engage others in playful interaction, and express feelings and inventive ideas to solve daily problems, such as trying to access something out of reach. Hence, providing open-ended materials, giving them opportunities to play with peers, and exposing them to new ways to express their thoughts through art, music, or drama will develop their creativity.

A child's creativity includes engaging in divergent thinking.

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  1. Craft, A. (2003) Creative Thinking in the Early Years of Education. Early Years, 23(2), 143–154,

  2. Torrance, E. P. (1998). The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking Norms—Technical Manual Figural (Streamlined) Forms A & B. Bensenville, IL: Scholastic Testing Service.

Divergent thinking or ''out of the box thinking'' is a measure of creative potential based on the generation of several ideas within one problem space. Divergent thinking is viewed as one major element of the cognitive process in creativity.
  1. Runco, M. A. (2004). Everyone has creative potential. In Sternberg, R. J., Grigorenko, E. L., & Singer, J. L. (Eds.), Creativity: From potential to realization (pp. 21–30). American Psychological Association.
When someone displays divergent thinking, their mind moves creatively in many different directions to discover new options. This thinking process helps children initiate curiosity about things, make observations, ask questions, find new meanings in objects, and find ways to solve problems.
  1. Starko, A. J. (2001). Creativity in the schools: Schools of curious delight. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

In a study that involved 29 one-year-olds and their parents, parent and child pairs were tested on divergent thinking. Toddlers' and parents' divergent thinking was moderately to highly correlated. This study showed that children think divergently as early as one year old. It also suggested that one-year-olds' divergent thinking was related to their parents'. In other words, parents who thought more divergently had children who were more divergent thinkers as well. This opens future research into whether this relationship is due to genetics and/or social learning at its emergence.

Creativity also correlates with social competence. In a Taiwanese study of creativity and its impact on social competence, 142 Taiwanese parents with children aged 4 to 7 years old and teachers evaluated children's social competence and creativity. Correlation analyses revealed a significant positive relationship between parents' and teachers' ratings of children's social competence and creativity. Children who were reported as creative were socially competent both at home and in school settings.

Research has found that children are most creative before they enter kindergarten.

Creativity declines after preschool age. In 1968, a researcher gave 1,600 five-year-olds a creativity test to see how highly creative they scored. This was the same test used by NASA to select innovative engineers and scientists.
  1. Land, G., & Jarman, B. (1992) Break-point and Beyond. New York, NY: Harper Business
He re-tested the same children when they were ten years of age (1978) and again at 15 years of age (1983). He later tested 280,000 adults to see how highly creative they scored.

Of 1,600 five-year-olds tested, 98 percent of the children scored in the 'highly creative' range. When re-testing these same children five years later, only 30 percent of these ten-year-olds were still rated 'highly creative'. By the age of 15, just 12 percent of them were ranked in this category, while a mere two percent of 280,000 adults over the age of 25 who had taken the same tests were still on this level.

Creativity can be sustained with play, and the best time for this is in early childhood. Studies have shown that play can help sustain creativity in preschool children. A study in Spain on 87 five to seven-year-olds found that a 75-minute weekly play session throughout the school year significantly increased verbal creativity (fluency, flexibility, originality), graphic creativity (elaboration, fluency, originality), and behaviours and traits of creative personality.

Since children are at the peak of their creativity when they are at their youngest, sustaining creative thinking is best started during this age when children's brains are developing the fastest and are at their most creative.