5 Ways to Foster Innovation in Children

Last week, Maker Boulder published a series of short posts by Alice Kembel describing how to foster innovation in kids. She should know: her husband, George, is Global Director and Co-Founder of the Stanford D-School and Alice is a thought leader in maker education. The Kembels are new to Boulder and bring with them their three innovative boys. And after last week’s series a couple of you intrepid readers asked if you could pretty please just have all the tips in one place instead of having to click post-to-post and inevitably getting lost in the process. So here they are: Alice Kembel’s 5 Ways to Foster Innovation in Children!

1. Provide materials that foster creativity.

Give children access to a variety of materials that can be used in many different ways, and model for them that their ideas can be made with these rough materials.  Children can create from unexpected materials – paper, tape, sticks, toilet paper tubes, popsicle sticks, boxes, corks, egg cartons, leaves, rocks, and much more.  Rather than buy toys for your children that have a singular, set purpose, choose toys that encourage creativity in their open-endedness.  Examples include Legos (without the instructions), Citiblocks, Tinker Toys, Magnatiles, straws and connectors, and blocks.

When my five-year-old wanted a Star Wars clone trooper mask, rather purchase one for forty dollars, my husband cut up a plastic milk jug, drew on it with Sharpie, and attached a cord to the back.  Our son was just as happy with his milk jug mask as he would have have been with a commercial one, and seeing his dad create his idea, simply with materials around the house, unlocked a new realm of possibility for him.

This process can work in reverse as well.  Children can be inspired to create a project from what they find compelling about various materials.  My boys, after they had collected numerous toilet paper tubes, created several sets of night vision goggles and binoculars because the cylindrical nature of the tubes triggered their imaginations in that direction.  Materials that foster creativity can give form to the ideas that children already have, as well as spark novel ideas.


2. Emphasize that there is no “right” way to create something.

As adults, we often take a “teacher-learner” approach with children; we teach, they learn, and we tell them when they’re doing something right or wrong.  When it comes to innovation, use a “learner-learner” approach.  Resist the urge to instruct your child in the “right” way to do something; allow children to experiment on their own.  Children can often surprise us with the unique ways that they utilize materials to design what they imagine.  They may incorporate a material in an unexpected, novel way, or use a completely different process to create their ideas.  Instead of saying, “You should do it this way,” or, “That’s not going to work,” use neutral language that encourages independent thinking, such as, “That’s interesting, I wonder what else we could do with that,” or, “I wonder how that’s going to work.”  Give your child the opportunity to think for himself without the idea that there is a “right” or “wrong” when it comes to innovating, and both of you will likely learn from the process.

When my oldest son was a toddler, in a never-ending quest to keep him occupied and out of mischief, I found a painting activity in a book that I thought he would enjoy.  After spending twenty minutes setting up the activity, I presented the materials to him and said, “Look, you can use these paints on the sliding glass door and then wash them off with the hose!”  He performed the intended task for about three minutes, and then proceeded to experiment with mixing paint colors for the next twenty.  As a rule-following, structured person, I was tempted to tell him that he wasn’t using the paint the “right” way; I had, after all, invested twenty minutes of my time to create the experience that the book described.  Instead, I refrained from saying anything and followed his lead, and his paint mixing experiment ended up being far more intriguing for both of us.


3. Provide scaffolding for children in their creative processes.

Once children have an idea in mind of something they want to create, resist the urge to tell them how to do it, even if they ask. Instead, give them just enough assistance to help them progress, while still fostering their independence.  This concept, often called “scaffolding,” stems from psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development, which states that help from adults is most beneficial when it is provided in the Zone of Proximal Development, just above the level of what a child can achieve on his or her own.  Scaffolding allows children to accomplish more than they could by themselves in a developing skill or ability, and enhances the learning process.  Scaffolding techniques might include breaking a process down into simpler steps, providing hand over hand assistance, or giving feedback as the child works on a project.  As children develop and learn, their Zone of Proximal Development changes constantly, so parents need to adjust the level and type of assistance they provide to optimize the child’s learning and increase independence.

When my youngest son was two, he wasn’t able to rip off pieces of tape by himself, but he wanted to use tape for his projects.  To provide scaffolding, I started by tearing off tape pieces for him but allowed him to stick the tape on by himself wherever he wanted.  When he was a little older, I held the tape dispenser for him, had him pull the end of the tape to the length he wanted, and helped him tear off the pieces.  When he was even older, I placed my hands over his and showed him how to hold the tape dispenser with one hand, pull the tape with the other, and tear it off by pulling it slightly downward against the blade.  Eventually, he was able to complete the entire process by himself, and as a result, we buy our tape at Costco.


4. Teach children to view setbacks as a opportunities to learn rather than as failures, and encourage them to embrace an attitude of experimentation.

When a project falls apart, gets knocked down, or is in some way unsatisfactory to a child, model a positive view of setbacks by encouraging children to think about what they can learn from it.  Some children, particularly those with a low frustration tolerance or who are perfectionistic, will be upset when something goes wrong.  Acknowledge their feelings and then ask questions such as, “That’s interesting, what happened there?  What can we learn from that?  What can we try next?  How can we change what we’re doing to make it better?”  When parents point out that children can make their projects even better when things don’t go as planned because they can learn something in the process, children will be more likely to accept setbacks as learning tools rather than view them as barriers that paralyze their progress.

In addition, encourage children to experiment with their ideas and make quick representations rather than focus on a finished product.  Most children incorporate this attitude naturally in their play as they explore, but can be overly concerned about producing a perfect end product when attempting to create something.  As parents, we can help establish a culture of experimentation by prompting them with questions that emphasize learning and problem-solving.  “That’s interesting, what do you think?  What can we try really quickly to test out this idea?  What can we try next to help us learn?  What if we sketch this out to see what might work?” are examples of questions that remove the pressure of making something perfect from the start and bias children towards action.  For example, if a child is frustrated that his drawing is not turning out the way he wants it to, we can ask, “Can we just do a quick sketch first, before we do the real one?  We might learn something that could help us go forward.”  This approach helps children test their thinking and identify and resolve problems early on, reducing the need for perfectionism and instilling confidence in their own creative abilities.

When my oldest son was five, for example, we received a box of Magnatiles as a gift.  He immediately began building a tower, but at a certain point when the weight of the Magnatiles at the top became too great, the tower collapsed with a resounding crash.  My son dissolved into tears.  My immediate inclination was to rush to his side, comfort him, and reassure him that we could build the tower again.  To my surprise, my husband said, “Wow, that was interesting!  Did you see how that collapsed?”

My son stopped sobbing for a moment, intrigued.

“I noticed that this part seemed weak,” said my husband.  “What do you think we could do to make it stronger?”

My son’s crying ceased completely as he began to contemplate the pile of collapsed Magnatiles in front of him.  “Well, maybe we need some supports instead of building it straight up,” he said.

“Let’s give it a try and see what happens.  Do you have an idea for what kind of supports you want to try?”

They began rebuilding the tower, making modifications as they went, and quickly finished a sturdier structure.

“See, buddy, even though it can be frustrating when something doesn’t work, it actually helps us learn so that next time we can make it even better!” said my husband.

“Yeah,” said my son.  “Now my tower is really strong!”

After being coached through similar incidents, our son began viewing falling towers and broken Lego ships as opportunities for improvement rather than indicators that he was doing something wrong.  He has developed such resilience from this mindset that he has a much greater capacity to persevere with his projects, even when he faces difficulties.


5. Praise the effort children put forth in the creative process, not their innate abilities. 

Rather than tell your children that they are creative, artistic, or smart when they are engaging in the creative process, praise them for working hard, experimenting with new strategies, and persevering through difficulties.  Research suggests that children benefit more from having their efforts praised, rather than their ability; in fact, praising children’s innate abilities may do more harm than good.  Psychologist Carol Dweck has discovered that praising children’s efforts yields motivation and resilience in learning, even in the face of challenges.  Focusing on effort means that children perceive themselves as being in control of their successes, whereas emphasizing intelligence means that success or failure is not within their control.

Dweck calls this type of praise effort or “process” praise. For example:

“You worked really hard on your paper airplanes, and it shows.  You tried a few different ways of folding it, made the changes you wanted, and now you have something that flies the way you want!”

“You were frustrated that your Lego ship kept breaking apart, but you didn’t give up.  You changed the parts that were fragile, and now your ship is stronger because you kept working on it.  That’s great!”

“I like the way you used so many different materials to make your puppet.  It looks like it took a lot of work, but you learned how to make different materials stick on the popsicle stick, and it makes it look so colorful.”

By praising children’s creative efforts rather than labeling them as “creative,” they are empowered and motivated to innovate without fear of failure, and view themselves as continuous learners.

My husband and I try to point out to our children what they are able to do independently, how we see them giving form to their ideas, how hard they tried, and what we see them learning in the process, rather than tell them they are smart or creative.  It became obvious that our process praise was rubbing off on our oldest son when he came back from a birthday party and told me, “We had red velvet cupcakes.  They were really good, Mama.  They were way better than yours.  You need to try your hardest next time you make them.”


These principles for nurturing creativity in children are highly intertwined.  When we provide open-ended materials for children to use, without emphasizing a “right” way to do things, they experiment and develop their own ideas.  When we provide scaffolding in the process, they gain the confidence and the skills to test out new ideas.  When they are able to view setbacks as learning opportunities, they become more willing to work with an attitude of experimentation, and belief in their own creative abilities increases.  When we praise children for their efforts rather than their abilities, they are more resilient in the face of difficulties, and view themselves as continuous learners.

Incorporating these concepts can foster a mindset of innovation in your children.  They will experience freedom to work in a way that is true and pure because safety has been established for their creative processes.   But children benefit in other ways as well.  These principles can help them develop resilience, problem solving skills, confidence, flexible thinking, curiosity, intrinsic motivation, persistence, and the ability to question assumptions.  What’s more, children discover a joy in the process, a richness and vitality from risk-taking that instills in them a love for learning.

As a parent, what I appreciate most about developing a culture of innovation in our home is that it creates space for each of our children’s unique voices to shine.  I can’t wait to see what trash-inspired projects will clutter our home next.

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