Why The D-School’s Alice Shi Kembel Lets Her Children Play With Trash (Part 5)

This week I’ve been writing about why I let my children play with trash (parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE). Here’s a hint: Not only will the ability to think innovatively help children develop a love for learning, but it will eventually prepare them to enter the workforce of a rapidly-changing world that faces complex challenges in the areas of technology, health care, the environment, and the global economy. Here’s the fifth and final suggestion in this 5-part series on how to foster innovation in children:

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.”

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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.


Alice Kembel and her husband, George, are recent CA–>CO transplants, having just arrived in town after immersion in the Stanford D-School. You can find Alice at www.aliceshikembel.wordpress.com.

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