Developing creative thinking skills through art

Getty Images/Antonio_Diaz

Karen Morse

In Growing Up Creative, author Teresa Amabile explains that fostering a creative environment helps children engage in abstract and analytical thinking, sharpen their visual-spatial acuity, and become more receptive to out-of-the-box thinking. Creative thinkers are more able to suspend judgment about people and circumstances and avoid gender stereotyping. They have high degrees of autonomy and demonstrate self-discipline in matters regarding work. They are able to delay gratification, tolerate ambiguity, and demonstrate high levels of self-control.

Creative learners are big-picture global thinkers with a willingness to take risks and strive for excellence. With your guidance, your gifted child can become a global thinker and make connections to real life experiences through the arts. This can lead to a lifetime of creative thinking, future problem solving.

“I’m painting a tiger pretending to be a lion,” exclaimed five-year-old Ben as he added a mane to his crude picture of a striped cat. Soon after that, he bounded off with a dry paintbrush-turned-sword and announced that he was Captain Hook pretending to be Peter Pan.

Children like Ben—who flow with unusual, humorous ideas—demonstrate creative thinking. Creativity requires original thought, which in turn requires clarity and a deep enough understanding of a concept that a novel idea can percolate and heuristic problem solving emerge. Exposure to and experience with the arts allows children to create, design, generate, and compose new ideas, further developing the creative thinking inherent in young children.

Color as a Catalyst

If navigated intentionally, learning about color can help children develop vocabulary, complex thinking, and keen observation. Use a variety of tactile experiences to help your preschooler gain an understanding of the nuances of color that will be missed if left to a computer program or flashcards.

  1. Take a nature walk to collect leaves in various shades of green. On your walk, point out that just as family members have different names, so do colors. Hunter, emerald, moss, mint, fern, celadon, and avocado more accurately describe the many hues of green. Talk to your child about the variations of color in leaves when they are in the shade or in the sunlight.
  2. Ask open-ended questions about the colors: What are all the fruits and veggies you can think of that are in the green family? What if all animals, houses, streets, and buildings were green, too?
  3. Experiment with paints to create new shades and tints. Let your child mix yellow and red paints. After some time, introduce white so your child can see the colors soften or add bits of black and see shades of orange emerge. For a fun warm-weather activity, fill one water bottle with yellow food coloring and water and another with red food coloring and water. Allow your child to spray the colors on sand, paper towels, or cloth to see the colors blend and create orange.
  4. Take a twilight stroll and notice the changing colors of the sky. Talking about color in a wide variety of situations increases your child’s environmental awareness and ability to make connections: “The sky at dusk reminds me of the rainbow sherbet that we had for dessert. Stick out your tongue and see if you can taste the sky!”

Exploring color using accurate vocabulary and connections to real things will help your child internalize a deeper understanding of a concept that many adults understand only at a cursory level. As your child thinks deeply about color and observes it intentionally through a variety of experiences, she gains new perspectives on her rapidly expanding world.

Art Museums Develop Observational Skills

Young children can enjoy art museums! Focus on the whimsical and magical, nature and animals, and other topics of interest to your child. Don’t try to do the whole museum in one visit. Many museums have free admission one day per week, and family memberships are often more affordable than a day rate.

  1. Read about art before heading to the museum. Gladys Blizzard’s wonderful Come Look with Me series introduces children to magnificent works of art found in museums throughout the world. Thoughtful text provides examples of conversations to have with your child to enhance his curiosity and enjoyment of artwork.
  2. When looking at paintings, sculpture, statues, photographs and other art forms, talk to your child about what he sees and thinks. Looking at Homer Winslow’s Boy Fishing, you might comment, “I wonder if that fish got away or if he kept it. Why do you think Homer Winslow painted so many pictures of people fishing? How else could the boy catch that fish? Do you think girls like to fish too? What are all the ways you can think of to catch a fish?”
  3. Play “I spy.” Challenge one another to find hidden objects in the museum’s paintings. Or, start a series of “wonderings” about a painting. Landscape paintings lend themselves nicely to wonderings: “I wonder what is down that path. Where would you like to play if you lived in that cabin by the river? Do you think someone was roasting marshmallows at that campfire?”

Exploring Art Around You

Before children learn to read and write, exposure to the arts enables them to express representative and abstract thinking. They learn to see things through a lens that is uniquely theirs. They learn that there is no right or wrong way to create. By examining and making a variety of artwork, including abstract art, children learn that people are individuals with unique expressions of ideas and emotions.  

To nurture these qualities in their children, parents can:

  1. Draw together. Young children will not be able to recreate realistic drawings, but they will delight in naming their scribbles and dictating stories to you to record their meaning.
  2. Explore Audubon’s paintings of birds. After, gather dried grass, leaves, and twigs to mix with mud and shape into birds’ nests and set the mixture in the sun to bake. Roll eggs out of clay or homemade dough to display in the nest. Be sure to identify the types of eggs they are and name their color! Don’t be concerned if your child doesn’t have the science right. The idea is that you are posing a question that requires critical thinking.
  3. Display posters and your child’s own artwork. Make sure to post them to the lower half walls so your child can see! Talk about the art the way you might at the museum.
  4. Provide a variety of materials to explore. Talk about your own process as you create, and make sure to also point out features of your child’s process without making judgment: “I notice that you like to draw spirals in your clouds. That’s interesting.”
  5. Take photos on your walks. Zoom in on plants, flowers, and objects so that only a portion shows in one photo. In a second photo, zoom out so that it becomes clear what the object is. Mount the photos back to back in a booklet so that your child can see how viewpoints change.

A Lifetime of Creative Problem Solving

Creative expression in the arts is as natural and developmentally necessary for children as fresh air and sunshine. Through the arts, children learn the fundamental process of discovering and imagining, originating and problem solving, thinking and creating. And as a parent, you are your child’s most important teacher. The conversations you have will help your child develop thinking skills that will last his lifetime.

Karen Morse holds a Master of Arts in Special Education with an emphasis on the gifted learner. With years of experience as a teacher, administrator, and mother of gifted children, she is currently an education consultant for Alternative Education Solutions, specializing in curriculum/program development, professional development, homeschooling/school placement, student advocacy, and gifted programming.