How to Encourage Creative Thinking in Preschoolers


“Our task, regarding creativity, is to help children climb their own mountains, as high as possible. No one can do more.” -Loris Malaguzzi

While standardized tests are increasingly focused on the mechanics of reading, writing, and numeracy, parents and teachers everywhere also recognize the critical capacity of creativity. Far from being limited to the realm of artistic expression (as important as that is), creativity in children and adults manifests itself as:

  • Flexibility and willingness to adapt to new circumstances.
  • Problem-solving when formulas fail to produce the desired results.
  • Making connections between disparate topics.
  • Generating new ideas.

Qualities like these help children function not only academically, but socially and in pursuit of their personal interests as well. Your child’s teachers are invested in helping your child to expand their horizons at school, but creativity doesn’t stop at ABC’s and 123’s Learning Centers’ doors.

Here are some ideas for encouraging creative thinking in your preschooler at home and beyond.

Learn to love the the artistic process.

The link between the arts and creativity is obvious to most, but arts education hasn’t always kept up. Results-oriented art, whether in the form of a paint-by-numbers activity, rehearsing choreography for a recital, or replicating that cute Mother’s Day craft you found on Pinterest, certainly has its place.

Activities like these can build motor skills and create a sense of accomplishment in young children. Used excessively, though, they can hamper a child’s inner sense of creativity by giving the impression that there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to create art.

Contrasting with this focus on the product is process-oriented art.

Try this at home…

Exploring art materials together without a particular goal in mind. What can we do with paper? (Tear, fold, cut, color, crumple, poke …) What can we do with different kinds of tape? What can we do with salt dough?

Practicing improvisation. If you have musical instruments at home, this is a great way to introduce their use. Child-sized hand drums (or even a resonant oatmeal container or cardboard box) are also opportunities for musical improvisation. Dancing to music, acting out imagined scenarios, and spontaneous storytelling are also examples of improvisation that can involve the entire family.

Reflecting on process together. When your child brings you a drawing or other creation, ask questions about the creative process. Rather than “What is it?” try “How did you make that?” This starts up a totally different kind of conversation and encourages children to experiment on their own.

Provide time for unstructured play.

Children today spend more time than ever in structured, adult-led activities. Some of these activities are positive and developmentally appropriate, like library story times and swimming lessons, while others (like excessive academic worksheets and drills) are not ideal in early childhood. Unstructured play can take many forms. One child might spend their time looking at books, another playing an extensive game of tag with friends, another holding court with a dozen different dolls. The link between these activities is that they are chosen and directed by the children themselves.

Try this at home…

Don’t panic when you hear, “I’m bored.” A little bit of boredom is a precursor to creativity. Most children (especially those who attend a high quality preschool program that includes time for child-directed play) will eventually figure out something that interests them.

As much as possible, create a “yes” environment. While you’re past the point of baby-proofing, there are a lot of areas and materials that need to remain off-limits to preschool children. (Think bleach, medications, some tools, etc.) Keeping these physically locked away means you need fewer rules about where children are not allowed to play, allowing you to say “yes” to more unstructured play with peace of mind.

Keep materials in reach. The converse of this is that there are things children absolutely should have access to. Any materials that are high up, locked, or otherwise inaccessible are materials that require adult intervention in order to play with. As your children grow older and more independent, think about how you can give them access to (and responsibility for) more of their own things.

Experiment with “loose parts.”

Loose parts” are objects that don’t need to be put together in any particular way, but that, with a little creativity, can be used together in many ways in open-ended play. If you ever built a fort with fallen branches, invented a new sport using tennis balls and some sidewalk chalk, or made jewelry out of spare buttons, you’ve played with loose parts before.

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Save those recyclables. Paper towel rolls, jar lids, newspapers, ribbons, fabric scraps, and cardboard boxes all make fantastic play materials, giving them a second life before hitting the recycling plant or landfill.

Try something from nature. Branches, stones, plants, sand, soil, shells, seeds, flowers, bark, and pine cones are not only fun to experiment with, they also provide a great excuse to get outside and collect more.

Go big and go home. Loose parts aren’t just for tabletop play. Hula hoops, ropes, tree trunks, beach balls, tires, laundry baskets, and old linens encourage gross motor skills along with creative play.

Explore natural environments.

Much of the manmade environment is designed to be used in one particular way. In order to use a slide safely, you must go up the ladder and down the chute. Bicycles are safe to sit on, but can be tippy if you try to stand on the seat. Hammocks make nice napping places, but terrible swings.

Unfortunately for children, this means that creativity in play is necessarily limited, even on playgrounds and in other spaces supposedly designed for them. Natural spaces, by contrast, aren’t built for one particular kind of experience. They aren’t built for human convenience at all. And this complexity creates an environment in which creative thinking is a necessity (How can I get past this log?) rather than a danger.

Try this at home…

Find nature close to home. While a hike through Turkey Run is an unforgettable experience at any age, most days it’s easier to find a patch of nature closer to home. Indianapolis is full of pocket parks and green spaces, but even a walk to the mulberry tree on the corner can be exciting journey for a preschool-aged child.

Don’t fear the weather. Put on clothing appropriate for rain, snow, mud, or sun. Splash in puddles, go sledding, grab some old dishes and make mud pies. It means some extra laundry, but the experiences are well worth the hassle.

If you can’t get out, bring nature indoors. Sometimes there’s just no getting around the necessity of indoor play, but there’s always an opportunity to bring a little bit of nature with you. A rock collection, a windowsill garden, or even a tub full of snow brought in on a frigid day can provide a dose of nature in an otherwise built environment.

Creativity is a gift that can last a lifetime, if we nurture it.

Too many adults find themselves paralyzed in the pursuit of perfection, rarely allowing themselves the freedom of creative thinking at home or in their work. If we as parents and educators work together to create environments in which children can experiment, take risks, wonder openly, and play freely, we are setting them up for a more successful and joyful life not just in school, but throughout their entire lives.

Contact us to learn more ways of encouraging creative thinking in your child’s life!