Early Childhood Education



Among early childhood educators, belief in the inherent creativity of young children is long standing and pervasive. In the field of creativity studies, however, the subject becomes more complicated. Among creativity scholars, numerous definitions exist that describe the creative person, the creative process, or how a variety of factors interact over time in a particular context to produce a creative product. Studies of extreme cases of creativity may highlight unusual gifts or atypical, sometimes psychotic, behavior. There are also definitions that credit esoteric forces, such as divine power or spirituality, with the occurrence of great creativity. Some even believe that creativity should not be defined—that it is unknown and unknowable.

Two of the most influential theories of development—those of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky—provide support for the view that children are creative in certain respects. But, as this discussion will show, they also assert that creative contributions of enduring value are only achieved after childhood and early adolescence.

There are many questions about creativity that are of interest to the early childhood educator. Among them are these: How does childhood fit into the puzzle of creativity? Are all young children creative, as is commonly believed, or is creativity a quality of the select few? What roles should teachers and parents play, if any, in enhancing creativity? Does it make sense to try to identify creative children and develop their talent, or is the relationship between childhood influences and adult creativity negligible or nonexistent? Although definitive answers to these questions are likely well into the future, the field of creativity studies has contributed to our understanding and, more important for the present purpose, to the relationship between creativity and early childhood education.

This discussion will first trace the belief that all children are creative back to its likely source—the influence of developmental theory on early childhood education over the past century. Next, the discussion will turn to contemporary creativity studies, including an examination of how influential theorists and scholars see the relationship between childhood and adult creativity. The reader will learn that recent definitions of creativity lean away from describing the traits of creative people (children or adults) and toward analyzing the multidimensional aspects of creativity.

Essentially, creativity will be shown to rely on a variety of qualities, skills, and capacities, some of which are partially developed during early childhood. The discussion will also show that a fundamental distinction must be made between those qualities of creative thought that are universal and common to all children, as contrasted with those qualities that vary from child to child. Moreover, context and timing is critical in determining who or what will ultimately be judged creative. The essay will conclude by pointing out that early childhood education serves a vital role in providing optimal conditions for sustaining creativity, a role that may be somewhat different from the one traditionally held.


The Influence of Developmental Theoryon Definitions of Childhood Creativity

At least since the child study movement of the late 1800s, progressive American educators, such as kindergarteners Patty Smith Hill and Alice Temple, have recognized and celebrated young children’s imaginative and expressive tendencies. Rachel and Margaret McMillan, famous for founding the nursery school movement in London in 1911, also placed a high value on children’s imagination, play, and “creativity.”

In more recent decades, prominent early childhood educators in America and abroad have carried on the traditions of the child study movement by applying the developmental theories of Arnold Gesell, Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and, most recently, Lev Vygotsky. Each of these theorists granted children’s creativity a prominent place, although interpretations varied according to each theory. Early childhood educators, in turn, have interpreted theory and research in relation to their existing goals, beliefs, and practices.

Gesell’s normative age/stage theory identified a timetable for the emergence of physical, social, emotional, and intellectual characteristics, including manifestations of creativity, such as fantasy and representational play. Freud’s psychosexual theory linked early childhood to creativity by emphasizing that children’s thought processes are not subject to rules of logic, an important feature of adult creativity, and by establishing a link between cognition and strong emotion, a driving force behind creativity. By stressing the importance of symbolic and fantasy play, during which time children take leave of reality, psychoanalytically oriented theories showed how some of the natural tendencies of young children might play themselves out in adult creativity.

The constructivist theories of Piaget and Vygotsky influence early childhood education today and are often cited in descriptions of developmentally appropriate practice. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development emphasizes individual constructions of knowledge, while Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory places more emphasis on social and instructional contributions to development. Both theories, however, emphasize the importance of play (albeit different kinds of play) for promoting cognitive development and preparing for adult creativity.

For Piaget, the emergence of symbolic thought at around age two brings with it an explosion of language and the beginnings of pretend, symbolic play—the quintessence of creative activity during early childhood. As well, Piaget’s description of equilibration, the process that drives cognitive development, includes characteristics that associate readily with prevailing definitions of creativity during early childhood—qualities such as curiosity, exploration, and invention.

A more subtle description of Piaget’s ideas about creativity involves assimilation, which, along with accommodation, are the two basic processes involved in the equilibration process, that is, the construction of knowledge. Piaget viewed assimilation as relatively more effortless than accommodation in its functioning. For example, Piaget said that symbolic play was the purest form of assimilation— in symbolic play, children make of the world whatever they wish with little regard for reality. In contrast, Piaget called imitation the most obvious form of accommodation, a process that is more cumulative and that builds up knowledge over time.

For Piaget, adult creativity depends on keeping intact the child’s powerful tendency to assimilate new experiences to serve her or his own purposes. However, the tendency to assimilate is necessary but not sufficient for creative contributions. Only when the person has acquired a rich and accurate understanding of the known world will she or he be able to transform it productively. Piaget (1972) recognized that some individuals are more talented at doing creative work than others, but why this is so, he acknowledged, is “wrapped in mystery...” (Piaget, 1972, p. 221).

Vygotsky also believed that play facilitated creativity, but his focus was on play as it helped children learn what is true in their social world through creation of “imaginary situations” (Vygotsky, 1978). In contrast to Piaget, Vygotsky emphasized the kind of play that facilitates accommodation (although he did not use Piaget’s terminology). Through play, Vygotsky maintained, children create their own “zone of proximal development,” the most famous of Vygotsky’s ideas. The zone of proximal development is the distance between what children can do independently and what they can do with the assistance of more capable others, such as playmates, parents, and teachers. In play, Vygotsky believed, children are always reaching ahead of themselves.

So it is that the influence of at least a century’s worth of child development theory, intertwined with a Western culture that tends to romanticize children and childhood, has by now produced an orthodoxy on the question of childhood creativity. The conviction that all young children are creative permeates the early childhood literature. None of these developmental theories, however, deals with specific talents and gifts that may portend exceptional development. Their focus is on various aspects of early thought and emotion and the role that these have in achieving normal development. This role is crucial, but it leaves open the question of how to identify and support exceptional promise.

As well, the field has not undertaken systematic empirical work to support the claim that all children are creative, nor has it yet assimilated the subtleties of psychology’s most powerful developmental theories. Creativity in the received developmental point of view of early childhood education emphasizes the child’s playful, imaginative, spontaneous, expressive, and inventive capabilities, just as one might expect based on the theories briefly reviewed here.


The Field of Creativity Studies

In 1950, J. P. Guilford, outgoing President of the American Psychological Association, launched the field of creativity studies with a daring challenge to psychologists—to broaden their research on intelligence to include creativity. Up to that point, psychologists had focused their study of talented adults on IQ, an approach that, in Guilford’s view, limited scholarship on a topic of critical national importance (Guilford, 1950). Guilford saw creativity as a trait shared to greater or lesser degrees by all individuals and believed that a psychometric test could be constructed that would provide an accurate measure of a person’s creative capacity. Guilford’s work was with adults, but other scholars, inspired by Guilford’s vision, tried to extend creativity testing into the early childhood years. After two decades of research, consensus within the field of creativity studies concluded that the effort to produce valid and reliable psychometric instruments for the assessment of creative potential was on the whole unsuccessful.

Starting in the mid-1970s, the field of creativity studies moved away from testing and toward the study of cognitive, emotional, personal, and cultural aspects of creativity, primarily in adults. The field also embraced the case study method, with several important studies of exceptionally creative individuals (e.g., Darwin, Gandhi, Madame Curie). These studies revealed valuable information about the childhoods of the cases. For example, Darwin was slow to develop as a student and would not have been identified as unusually creative in early childhood. On the other hand, his passion for insects could have been spotted by an astute early childhood educator. This finding suggests that today’s teachers might help identify and develop children’s specific interests rather than trying to enhance general development. A growing consensus in the field of creativity studies suggests that creativity is domain specific.

Robert Sternberg’s (1999, pp. 4-12) Handbook of Creativity summarizes the major contemporary perspectives on creativity, none of which is specifically aimed at early childhood. Mystical views of creativity, dating back at least to Plato, credit divine intervention with creative production; although not widespread, mystical views of creativity persist. Indeed, Piaget (1972), quoted earlier, expressed such a view when it comes to individual talent or genius.

In direct contrast, pragmatic approaches, which seem to have a good deal of popular and commercial appeal, attempt to stimulate innovative thinking of the sort identified by Guilford by using training exercises. Pyschodynamic approaches, associated most closely with Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual theory, attribute creativity to unconscious drives and rely primarily on case studies of eminent creators; relatively few studies with an explicitly psychodynamic perspective currently appear in the literature.

Psychometric approaches dominated the creativity field from 1950-1970. This approach relied on paper and pencil assessments that tested divergent thinking, cognitive fluency, flexibility, and the originality of a subject’s responses. The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (Torrance, 1974), for example, were widely used to identify individuals, including children, who were “creative.” The tests did not reliably predict a relationship between high scores and real life creativity, however, weakening claims that the tests measured creative potential.

The cognitive approach to the study of creativity uses both human subjects and computer simulations in an attempt to identify the mental representations and processes underlying creative thought. A fundamental belief of this point of view is that creativity can be reduced to ordinary cognitive processes that can in turn be programmed into computers or taught to people.

Personality analyses of creativity have appeared in the literature for decades, with researchers noting time and again that certain personality characteristics tend to describe creative people. These characteristics include independence of judgment, self-confidence, attraction to complexity, aesthetic orientation, and risk-taking. Motivational traits, such as boldness, courage, ambition, and perseverance, also characterize creative people.

The relevance of the social context and of historical events to creativity has also become an active area of research, particularly as the field shifted away from the study of creative persons and toward the creation of more complex models. Simonton (1994), for example, studied creativity over broad spans of time and in diverse cultures to show the impact of society on creative performance. His work considered how variables such as cultural diversity, war, role models, financial support, and the number of competitors in a domain determine who will ultimately achieve creative eminence.

Each of the six approaches discussed in Sternberg’s (1999) review (mystical, pragmatic, psychoanalytic, psychometric, cognitive, and personal-social) has contributed to our understanding of creativity, but none offers a completely satisfying solution to the questions that early childhood educators ask about creativity. The field of creativity studies has now moved toward more integrative, multidisciplinary, systemic views of creativity, emphasizing that creative development is more domain-specific than had been previously believed. While still in their formative stages, several of these new approaches offer helpful ideas about the role of teachers and schools in fostering creative development.


Systems Approaches to the Study of Creativity

Systems approaches to the study of creativity maintain that multiple factors must converge for enduring creativity to occur. Howard Gruber’study of Charles Darwin’s thought as he constructed his theory of evolution through random variation and natural selection helped launch the evolving-systems point of view about creativity. Gruber’s study of Darwin shows that creative contributions of the highest order require sustained effort over long periods of time (at least ten years), coordination of many strands of activity, extensive experience and preparation in the subject matter field, and a powerful vision that guides the work.

Working along similar lines, David Henry Feldman proposed a model of creativity where a “coincidence” of dimensions is involved in instances of creative genius. Feldman’s work also revealed that children, even child prodigies, rarely make contributions that can be considered enduringly creative. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s systems approach highlights the interaction among the individual, the field, and the domain, and emphasizes that creativity is as much a judgment by society as it is an individual achievement. Howard Gardner, best known for his multiple intelligences theory, also works within a systems tradition, focusing his attention on analyzing the lives of indisputably creative individuals. Changing the World: A Framework for the Study of Creativity collects the work of these scholars into one volume (Feldman, Csikszentmihalyi, and Gardner, 1994).


Creativity and Young Children

This entry began by raising several questions about creativity and young children. As we have seen, the scholarly field of creativity studies is vital and diverse, but has for the most part not addressed directly the questions of greatest interest to the early childhood community. At the outset, we asked whether all young children are creative, as is commonly believed. Our review has shown that, while all typically developing children display characteristics associated with creativity, such as curiosity, expressiveness, playfulness, attentiveness to the world, gener- ativity, inventiveness, imagination, and spontaneity, these qualities of the early childhood years are quite likely aspects of natural development and will not necessarily lead to adult creativity. Childhood creativity is not the creativity of the master, but some of its qualities must be preserved if masterworks are to be achieved. Feldman (2003) alerts us to one of the most challenging questions in the field of both creativity studies and early childhood education: How can we sustain the childlike spark that ignites the creative process through the many challenges to its expression and in a form that can be appreciated by others?

Perhaps the definition of early childhood creativity should be expanded beyond the usual platitudes to include the idea that children should use their exploratory and inventive tendencies to change the world around them—to take liberties with reality and to transform natural or artificial materials in an infinite variety of ways. The field of early childhood education has traditionally led the way in providing young children with open-ended materials that invite imaginative use and endless variations on the play themes of childhood, and this effort seems all to the good so far as creativity is concerned. The field should perhaps be as concerned about helping identify remarkable creative potential in children in specific content areas as in sustaining and supporting the natural creative tendencies of all children.

The preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy provide a model that deserves mention in any discussion of childhood creativity (Edwards, Gandini, and Forman, 1995). Loris Malaguzzi was adamant that all humans have creative potentials and that schools must nurture this as well as other developing capacities. Lessons from Reggio Emilia suggest strongly that young children need ample time, adequate space, inviting materials, a supportive climate, and, perhaps most important, provocative experiences with challenging subject matter that arouse and sustain their creative impulses. Whether or not these ingredients lead to creative accomplishments in adulthood should not be the main concern, for surely they will lead to healthy development. This may in turn lead to an increase in the number of children who grow up to lead creative lives and enrich their culture through enduring creative achievements. See also Constructivism.

Further Readings: Edwards, Carolyn, Lella Gandini, and George Forman, eds. (1993). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. Norwood, NJ: Ablex; Feldman, David Henry (2003). Creativity and children. In R. Keith Sawyer, Vera John Steiner, Seana Moran, Robert J. Sternberg, David Henry Feldman, Jeanne Nakamura, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, eds. Creativity and development. New York: Oxford University Press; Feldman, David Henry, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Howard Gardner (1994). Changing the world: A framework for the study of creativity. Westport, CT: Praeger; Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. American Psychologist 5, 444-454; Piaget, Jean (1972). Creativity: Moving force of society. Reprinted in Gallagher, J. M., and D. K. Reid (1983). The learning theory of Piaget and Inhelder. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole, pp. 221-229; Simonton, Keith (1994). Greatness. New York: Guilford; Sternberg, Robert J., ed. (1999). Handbook of creativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; Torrance, E. Paul (1974). Torrance tests of creative thinking. Lexington, KY: Personnel Press; Vygotsky, Lev (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ann C. Benjamin and David Henry Feldman