I believe (no, I know) that all children are naturally creative – until we teach it out of them. Children are born with imagination, freedom, and fearlessness. I believe there’s something really wrong with an education system that results in LESS creativity as skill and knowledge grow.
- Sam Holland
“The world of reality has its bounds, the world of imagination is boundless.” John-Jacques Rousseau
Ask a five-year-old child to use the groups of of two black keys to make a piece about a frog jumping, and the child will transform the black keys into lily pads. In their magical thinking, the piano itself becomes the vessel to their imagination. Given the same assignment at age six, the child will play through a rather elaborate journey, hopping from group to group while narrating the story of the frog, which they have already come to love quite deeply. At seven, the child will count how many times the frog has jumped and may have an organized form to their creation. An eight-year-old will be full of ideas, some of which may be overly ambitious. They may be nervous about trying out these ideas and become easily frustrated. They may soon be ready to try again and want to talk about their ideas with you. At nine, the child will likely claim “That’s boring.” Having more interest in facts and science, the assignment now seems “babyish” and beneath them.
As children move through the various and necessary stages from magical to concrete and later abstract thinking, the imaginative stage of early childhood must diminish. The journey represented in the above scenarios changes landscape dramatically as it is presented to older, presumably more skilled students; as it evolves from magical lily pads to “boring,” creativity appears to deteriorate precipitously. It is important to understand, however, that these changes demonstrate tremendous cognitive growth. When we begin to understand the common characteristics unique to each age, we can better guide children’s creativity to flourish and develop in a more substantive way. Consider these follow-ups for each age group, and decide to which age group they belong:
A. Let’s take this idea of the frog jumping twice on each group in four different octaves and turn it into a new piece. What are some things you might do to make your piece longer?
B. I especially like your idea to have a smooth underwater section in between two staccato sections. Why don’t you try the smooth section right now before tackling the whole piece?
C. Hmmmm…. I wonder….. If the two black keys are lily pads, what do you think the white keys C,D,E might be?
D. Maybe we can make this more interesting by adding some suspense…. How about taking a simple melody on D-flat and E-flat and transposing it to every key going up the chromatic scale? I think that frog would be doomed by the time we finish.
E. I really like your story and your piece. What do you say our new frog friend now goes to visit his pal the slippery snake?
A. age 7, B. age 8, C. age 5, D. age 9, E. age 6
The ages listed above are approximate, naturally, but the characteristics (though but a few) are universal among children, across cultures. Our understanding of the child is key in bridging the creativity gap, not teaching a subject or a curriculum, but the unique individual in that very moment in her/his development. In his book: Emile: On Education, John-Jacques Rousseau states, “Childhood has its own ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling; nothing is more foolish than to try and substitute our ways.” Although this treatise on education was written in the mid-eighteenth century, it provides great insight toward a child-focused pedagogy which couldn’t be more relevant today (available here ).
Without taking on the education system or current trends in parenting, it is important to digress a little in order to acknowledge observations about the rushed pace of the times we live in and its impact on our children: children are expected to fit into the expectations of the modern classroom, staying seated for long periods of time, having reduced recess periods (if any), and preparing for the rigors of standardized testing. There is pressure to excel in academics, sports and the arts, and we see young children rushed from one after-school activity to another, leaving little time for play. Aside from the agenda put upon this generation from current trends in education and societal pressures, children continue to require the opportunity to experience the real work of childhood: to play. This is a fundamental flaw with our current educational thinking: that the social and physical developmental needs of childhood are not receiving sufficient opportunity to integrate with cognitive development in our rush to teach them what we think they need to know.
One of my favorite Frances Clark quotes is, “Never teach today what you can put off until tomorrow.” Children need to assimilate their new discoveries through play, and Frances understood this thoroughly and lived it by example in her teaching. Teachers should always know where their students are in their understanding of a concept: whether they are new in their understanding, growing in their understanding, or have reached mastery. Creative assignments such as composing, improvising, making accompaniments or comping rhythms, and other integrated arts assignments such as drawing, dancing, storytelling are all important and relevant activities, not for the sake of creating itself, but for developing a culture of learning toward achieving mastery.
Sam Holland states a fact: all children are born creative beings. He presents us with an enormous challenge to examine how NOT to teach it out of them. We teachers, in turn, are uniquely suited to the task, not only through the joyful and creative nature of our work, but also through our ability to work with the same child over an extended period of time, spanning many stages of their development. When we recognize there is not one method of teaching, but a method for each student at each stage in their development, we begin to regularly look at our students through a new, more holistic lens, creating an age-appropriate and secure environment in which their creative energy will thrive as their knowledge and skills grow. We can be secure in the knowledge that we are helping them to develop creative habits that will keep curiosity alive, long after they have left the age of magical thinking.
As I leave to pursue the nearest lily pad, here are a few suggested activities by age to get you started. Happy teaching!
5’s: Wondering about each new piece: what it is about and how they expect it to sound,
Composing has subject-based title and one simple task,
Trying their repertoire pieces in a new way such as on different keys, or upside-down,
Marching or dancing as the teacher plays, responding to dynamics, rests, etc.,
Drawing a picture about their favorite piece or composition.
6’s: Wondering about each new piece: what it is about and how they expect it to sound,
Subject-based composing continuing to use one musical concept (teacher may need to help them find an ending),
Improvising or providing sound-effects on the piano on a short story or poem,
Playing and leading musical games such as Pop! goes the Weasel!(counting the beats until the surprise”pop”),
Walking in rhythm to their piece.
7’s: Wondering about each new piece: what it is about and how they expect it to sound,
Subject-based composing focusing on structured form,
Improvising with teacher on pre-determined sets of keys and rhythm,
Finding the “mistakes” in a musical example played by the teacher.
8’s: Wondering about each new piece: what it is about and how they expect it to sound,
Making changes to an existing piece (one change at a time) such as major to minor or legato to staccato,
Adding rhythm to an accompaniment,
Improvising or composing a piece on an idea that is already started for them,
Using pitched percussion instruments such as boomwhackers or xylophones to explore tonic and dominant.
9’s: Wondering about each new piece: what it is about and how they expect it to sound,
Composing for prepared piano, or non-traditional ways of playing piano,
Playing a piece with one hand in a different key,
Improvising on a piece they already know,
Playing chords to pop tunes from guitar or vocal scores such as chordie.com.
Mary Bloom is the Head of Music Education and Piano Department Chair at Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, CT. She is currently celebrating her twenty-fifth year on the NMS faculty, where she teaches individual and group piano, piano ensemble and piano pedagogy. A graduate of the New School for Music Study and Westminster Choir College; BM, MM, Mary was the Coordinator of the Preparatory Division at the New School for Music Study before moving to CT to be near family. Featured teacher at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy and the Fiftieth Annersary of The New School for Music Study. Numerous articles and appearances at national conventions. Teachers include Phyllis Lehrer, Frances Clark, Louise Goss, Sam Holland and NMS teacher Helen Shafranek