Back-to-School: Nurturing Creativity

Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D., and Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D.
Developers of the PBS Parents Guide to Creativity
Friday, September 16, 2005; 11:00 AM

Are you a parent that's looking for ways to heighten your child's creative side? Are you curious about what kinds of games and activities would help you to do so?

Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D., and Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D., who worked to architect, research and develop the PBS Parents Guide to Creativity that targets parents of kids from birth to age nine, were online Friday, Sept. 16, at 11 a.m. ET to talk about how to nurture creativity within children as they return to school for the new year.

The Web site includes 14 original online games and offline activities, plus tips and strategies for parents to weave creativity into their child's everyday life.

After teaching in public and private schools in the 1990's, Christine Theberge Rafal has been a creator of professional development courses for teachers and an invited speaker on a range of topics, including children's literacy development and positive parenting. As a speaker and as a Title One Family Liaison for an urban community where she also serves on a school council, she works with ethnically, linguistically and economically diverse families. Rafal began her education in a French (Canadian) parochial school in northern New England, earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Stanford, MAT from Tufts, and Ed.D. from Harvard. Her research has appeared in The Journal of the Learning Sciences, American Speech, Le Forum (University Of Maine) and John R. Rickford's textbook African American Vernacular English. An amateur fiber and visual artist she has painted murals in her community and nurtures the creative development of her eight-year-old and six-year-old children. She is a senior research and development associate at Education Development Center.

For over 15 years, Miriam W. Smith has conducted research and developed approaches to improve early childhood education and family support. A major contributor to Harvard Home and School Study, she followed more than 70 children for a decade to identify the types of parent-child and teacher-child interactions that stimulate development. She has worked on numerous projects that assess early childhood teaching and learning in the areas of language development, literacy, science, mathematics and technology. She has designed tools, programs and materials that better enable teachers to support content-rich and playful learning. Smith provides workshops for both teachers and parents that address the role of playful exploration and problem-solving in children's lives. Smith received her M.A. from Tufts University in Applied Child Development and a doctorate from Clark University.

The transcript follows


Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D.: Good morning readers, I am happy to be here today along with Christine to answer your questions about creativity!


Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: Hi everyone, thanks for stopping by!



North Springfield, Va.: My 5-year-old son is in Kindergarten this year. We enrolled him in a catholic school near our home and kindergarten class is a full day. I have a few questions, your answers or advice/comments are appreciated.

1. The catholic school our son goes to aren't required to having their students take SOL tests. So how do we grade the school? How would I know if my son's school is doing a better job at teaching its students comparing to other schools, be it public or private.

2. Our 5-year-old son is bilingual already. He speaks to mom in Portuguese and me, his dad, in English. I wonder if I should start talking to him in my native language, Thai. Would it be too much or too late for him at this point to learn to speak a 3rd language ?

3. What do you think of SCORE! Educational Centers as "supplemental education"? Not that our kid needs any supplemental education or anything but he goes there 2 hours a week to learn reading and math. He seems to like going there. Its fun for him. I guess we'll stop when its no longer "fun." My wife worries that it may be "too much" for him since his kindergarten is already a "full day". Would appreciate your thought on this. What do you think of these supplemental education centers, their approach, etc.?


Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: Good morning. In terms of your question about how you would grade the school, I would first ask you how you selected the school. I imagine you visited it beforehand, talked to other parents, students, teachers, etc. You probably felt it matched your values and would be a good fit for your child. You may not know for a while, but basically you just want to be sure your child is learning something new on a regular basis--talk to him every day about this, watch his folder for the work that comes home. How it ranks compared to other schools is harder to gauge and frankly less important than how well you feel it meets the needs of you and your child.

Regarding SCORE and Thai, those are also personal calls. On the one hand he seems to enjoy Score. On the other, it is always good to attend to whether your child has down-time and time to think their own thoughts.

It is great to learn multiple languages before puberty, but adults can still acquire new languages; they just learn them differently. If your child hears Thai around him he should have no trouble learning what he's ready for or wants to pick up. Depending on his language development in the other two languages, you may just want to start by playing songs in Thai.

I'll move on to another question now.


North Springfield, Va.: Is there a place that help teach children etiquette ? I would like to emphasis more to my young children proper social behavior. We try to teach this to our kids at home but it would be nice if there was a class for this.

If you know if any place in the Washington metro area, please advise.

Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D.: Good morning North Springfield reader,

Your question about etiquette is interesting. The rules governing proper social behavior vary from person to person, community to community, and society to society. One of the primary ways that children come to learn proper social behavior is by observing the behaviors, and misbehaviors, of people around them. One key aspect of observation is reading facial and physical cues. One of the games on the creativity Web site, Emoticons, provides an opportunity for children and parents to "play" with facial expressions and can be a fun first step towards conversations about feelings and associated behaviors.


Washington, D.C.: What is your definition of being creative?

Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D.: Hi there, and thanks for the great question!

While there are many components of creative thinking, the three most central for such thinking in children, as well as those most easily nurtured by parents and teachers, are:

1. Playful Exploration: ways of playing, especially with open-ended materials--either alone or with other people--that allow for creative expression and spontaneous discovery.

2. Fluent Ideation: the ability to generate multiple ideas, including unusual ones, across multiple categories for a single image, object or situation.

3. Novel Combination: the ability to generate original thoughts and ideas by making connections between or among concepts that the thinker previously saw as separate and unrelated.

In addition to the creative thinking processes, at least two other elements contribute essentially to a creative act - knowledge and interest.

Creative thinking processes and knowledge work together. We play to gain knowledge, and when we have knowledge, we have the option of being creative by playing with it. The more knowledge we have, the greater the possibilities for combining ideas and thoughts in new ways (novel combination).

Being creative also requires interest, in the form of motivation or inspiration. People are most creative in activities that they love because they enjoy the play, the activity, and the thinking involved.

Finally, we often refer to a "mindset" for creativity as being open to new experiences, new ways of looking at the world, and having a sense of humor!


Alexandria, Va.: I have a 3-month old baby. What sorts of activities can I do with her at this young age to encourage creativity?

Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: Hi below is some of the information included in the PBS Parents Guide to Creativity: I hope this helps. Your own value on creativity and providing open-ended toys and interaction will also help. Have fun with her!

To promote the openness to experience that underlies and expands playful exploration, try holding or "wearing" your infant in a soft carrier (such as a sling, a front carrier, or a traditional baby wrap worn on the back). The pre-mobile infant will have a new and dynamic point of view. He will not only have more experiences than in a seat or swing, but will also feel the caregiver's own emotional responses to these experiences through the adult's heartbeat, breathing patterns, skin temperature, and muscle tension. Assuming a confident, competent adult is holding him, he learns openness to a variety of experiences.


Washington, D.C.: My son is almost three and he is delayed in his speech. He is a bilingual baby because I speak French too him. His doctor's recommendation is to only use one language, English. He seems to do better now. What is the reality of bilingual babies and speech delays?

Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: You might want to check out another PBS Parents Guide, the one for Reading and Language. Miriam was a major contributor to that site.

Bilingual children do often have language delays. Since your child is already three though it might be helpful to try one language for a while to sort out if it's a different issue than just the bilingualism. Good luck


Newton, Mass.: What inspired you to select the featured creativity activities?

Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: I'm really glad you asked that question. People can exercise their creativity in so many ways, it was hard to choose just 14 online activities! What we did was think about some of the larger 'domains' if you will where children exercise creativity, and ways in which parents can enhance their children's creative development.

So the site has three 'venues'. The first Sensory Stuff, mimics how children play with open-ended materials. Ideas & Exploration contains activities that relate more to the ways cultures provide for creative expression, music, art, etc. Creativity Challenge is intended to recognize and promote the creativity necessary for innovative problem solving.

We chose the specific fourteen games in order to give broad coverage of creativity and to allow us to give parents wide-ranging information about creative development in the Interact, Understand, Expand buttons.

Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D.: There were also some very personal reasons for our choices! Christine loves quilting and gardening and two of the activities are directly related to those creative interests. Another two activities were generated by our own children's ideas and interests. One of my daughters is a gymnast as had the idea for the Uneven Bars interactive. One of Christine's daughters is captivated by the stars and had the idea for the Stars interactive. I have a lifelong interest in all things mechanical, especially plumbing, so you can guess where Plumbing Pro came from!

As we note on the site, creativity is often inspired by our personal passions and knowledge, and the games on the site are no exception!


Arlington, Va.: What are some good tips to mix in creative projects with the scheduled life of a typical school week? Any in depth tips are greatly appreciated - thanks!

Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: Hi, do you like to cook? Many people find cooking with their children a relaxing way to reconnect after a day apart. You can experiment with novel combinations, or possibly even playful explorations (like letting a very young child decorate pizza with cutup vegetables--an edible emoticon, see )

Also you can make up silly songs, even if you don't compose tunes, you can change the words to songs on the radio in the car.

Maybe a Friday afternoon trip to a paint your own pottery place? That really depends on the age and interests of your children. Also art museums sometimes have drop-in project hours after school. These keep the mess out of your home.


Acton, Mass.: Is it possible to "teach" our children to be creative, in the same way we teach Math or Literacy skills?

Also interested to hear about the tension between allowing our children to develop creativity vs. school's emphasis on statewide standards and test scores ...

Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: It is certainly possible to teach your children the habit of looking at things in different ways. For example, Dr. Deepak Chopra suggests designating one day a week (Wednesday in his family) to making a chore or other unpleasant thing into a game as one way to teach children to interpret events from different points of view. This is an important ingredient for creativity. The Matisse Cutouts activity explicitly encourages it.

Looking at things differently is as you point out somewhat contradictory to "right answer" kind of thinking encouraged by standardized tests. But you can teach your child to be flexible in terms of which thinking mode he or she is using. In fact, learning to use different modes of thinking helps with creative problem-solving. You can help your children take what's useful to them at school, like acquiring lots of new ideas and facts with which to think, and help them use those creatively when appropriate.


Washington, D.C.: I have a 9-year-old who loves to do arts and crafts in front of the TV! Given her full schedule, this is the only time she gets to relax, so the two take place simultaneously. Do you find this to be a problem?

Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: No. I'm sure you help her choose shows, so it sounds doubly relaxing to me.


Washington, D.C.: What are the benefits of being creative? Does it benefit a child to try to enhance their creative side? What's the evidence of this, if so, and how? Thanks.

Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: Hello Washington,

The individual benefits of being creative include just being able to express one's own ideas and feelings in a variety of ways, and the pleasure of having made or produced something. For some, this is a pleasure that can be shared and made more meaningful by an "audience" such as a sibling or parent. It can be a way to connect with others.

Businesses are always looking to innovate and a creative person who works well with others is a great asset.

But I think as a society we all benefit by encouraging new ideas and new ways of looking at our world. For scientific evidence, you might want to refer to _The Handbook of Creativity_, edited by R.J. Sternberg.

Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D.: One of the ways we approached our thinking about the web site was to generate a list of people, projects, and ideas that we felt exemplified creative thinking and acting. Our long list included scientists, inventors, composers, musicians, actors, dancers, athletes, artists, philosophers, writers, poets and many more. Along with each game, we offer quotes about creativity and examples of the benefits that creativity can offer individuals and society along with resources and evidence for further inquiry.


Seward, Neb.: I think reading with young children is one of the most important things parents can do. Could you share your comments on the value of reading aloud with children, for fostering creativity and in other areas, and provide some suggestions for parents who want guidance in reading to their children?

Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D.: Greetings to Nebraska!

I couldn't agree more with your assertion that reading with young children (and older children too) is absolutely essential to their development. Not only does reading aloud promote literacy and language skills, it also expands children's knowledge of the world. And it is there where the connection to creativity comes in.

When we read with children, we expose them to worlds created with words and ask them to employ their imaginations. We ask them to move beyond the words on the page and into real and fictional worlds beyond the page. Young children readily move from fact to fantasy and are willing to suspend reality in their play, which is a large part of what makes them creative players and thinkers.

As parents and teachers of young children, we can encourage children's language, literacy, knowledge and creativity when we read aloud to them, frequently and broadly.

As far as resources go, I would certainly recommend local libraries and librarians, many communities have story hours for young children. As far as an online resource, check out the PBS Parents Guide to Talking and Reading Together for detailed information on language, literacy, reading, and writing development and suggestions for specific materials.


Capitol Heights, D.C.: Oh thank you so much for that Web site! I have shared it with family and friends. I found myself playing the games. Great for the Grandkids.

Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D.: Thanks!

We worked hard to develop games that would be appealing to people of all ages, that would be fun to play together, and that would be fun to visit multiple times. We're glad you are enjoying them as well as your grandchildren!


Woodbridge, Va.: Hello Miriam and Christine, I'm a school-based speech pathologist and also a mom of a toddler. Can you suggest some themes (besides the usual fall, Halloween, winter, etc.) that I could base lessons and activities around for my speech kids AND my son? Thanks!!

Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D.: Hi there,

The "seasons and holidays" approach to curriculum has long been employed in early childhood and school-age classrooms. While it has it's merits, there are other themes that more naturally lend themselves to longer, deeper exploration.

If you listen to children as they play together, or to your toddler as he explores his world, you may hear some genuine questions that could become the basis for a theme. I like to phrase theme ideas as questions, because that gives a good starting place for conversation that can generate ideas to follow (and lead) the theme. Here are a few ideas of the kinds of questions I'm speaking of:

Where does the water in our sink come from?

How do animals survive in the winter?

How do they build such tall buildings?

Why do people get sick?

Any of these questions could lead to explorations and a quest for answers. These explorations are, in turn, an opportunity for you to introduce materials, experiences, vocabulary, books, people, projects, and additional questions that move the "theme" along and offer you an opportunity to weave skill-based lessons into the students' interest in the topic.


Chantilly, Va.: Are there specific online games that help bring out creativity in kids?

Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: There are many games online and in software packages that help bring out creativity. The value we tried to add with this site was to surround the games with information on the value of each game for aspects of creative development, as well as ideas for parents to do more on their own. The information is in Notes to Parents and in the Interact, Understand, Expand buttons to the right of each game.


Washington, D.C.: My kindergarten son asks a lot of questions ? why, why, why ? why this, why that, etc. Is he just being creative and asking so may whys ? The other day he must have misbehaved in school and came home without a paper cut star he usually gets every day from his teacher if he behaves. So what my son did was to make his own paper cut star when he got home. I thought it was creative of him to do that, but I wish he would channel his creativity in a more positive way.

Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: Of course a basic reason for the incessant Why questions is Curiosity. And curiosity certainly helps with creativity and learning.

Another reason for Why questions: this can be a very effective strategy for getting adults to talk more or to keep talking. So it buys two things for the child: attention and language data. Children, even at 5, are still collecting language data (for example there is some evidence that they may not learn all the most complex verb tenses for several more years).

I agree the star was creative. But stories like that make me sad (not probably a professional way to say it, but hey I'm a mum, too).

Maybe you want to check into why he asks why. Can he read, or does he have other ways to get information and satisfy his curiosity on his own some of the time, too? Or some children just have higher needs for attention. Or, if it's a conversational strategy, perhaps you could just teach him a few others, like "what happens when..." "I was wondering..." "What do you think about..." Whatever seems to fit at the moment.

And, it doesn't sound too problematic anyway since you say he usually gets the star every day.


Newton, Mass.: What are parents telling you about their experiences with the Creativity Web site?

Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: Thanks for asking. We have had some good feedback. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that the site does stimulate creativity beyond just the games and ideas in the site.

For example, the aunt of a six-year-old reports that he was soon setting his own challenge to use as few tubes as possible in Marble Drop. ( He also figured out quickly that he could just stack pipes he didn't want in a corner of Plumbing Pro.(

Kids have made birthday cards for their parents from the Emoticons.

Aside from creativity, children have been known to use Pentatonic Scales to intently study what each note sounds like.

I'll let Miriam add to this.

Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D.: I have also heard mostly anecdotal comments from parents, but have also heard from some elementary grades teachers who are providing access to the site during computer time. They like the fact that the games are relatively simple to understand, can be played by several children at once, and are fun to visit multiple times.


Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: Also to the grandparent from Capitol Heights: I just want to add that we worked with great artists and engineers at Fablevision who made our ideas for these games actually work. It was a pleasure to work with them and watch our specifications come to life.


Arlington, Va.: Do you feel that after-school time is a good time to spend being creative? Should parents plan after-school play time for young ones and enroll older children in after-school activities that could enhance creativity? Any suggestions? I suppose it really depends on the child's like and dislikes as well. Thanks.

Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D.: Hi,

Any time is a good time to be creative! And you are right that the willingness to engage in creative enterprises varies considerably from person to person, as does the inspiration for creativity.

If your children enjoy "just playing" after school, consider yourself fortunate! Playing is inherently creative, inexpensive, and fun! It builds social, emotional, physical, and intellectual skills for children of all ages.

If you are seeking additional creative outlets for your children, look for settings where they are encouraged to explore, use materials flexibly, and are not judged by the products they create. Many art, music, drama, dance, gymnastics, and craft programs will allow children the freedom and flexibility to be creative and have fun.


Miriam W. Smith, Ed.D.: Thanks for all your thoughtful questions on creativity today. It was fun to be here! Thanks to Washington Post online, PBS Parents, and Fablevision for their parts in making the web site and today's chat happen. And thanks Christine!


Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: Christine Theberge Rafal, Ed.D.: Thank you all so much for your questions and your interest. I've enjoyed chatting with all of you! Have fun at the site.


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