Ministries of Education all over the world are racing to equip children with competencies that are needed for the 21st century: critical thinking, communicating, collaborating, and inventive or creative thinking.  Let’s talk about “creativity”.

We’ve had the privilege of drawing and learning with a highly creative child, ZZ, through the Dim Sim Warriors Club.  The Dim Sum Warriors Club provides families with a set of comics-based learning tools including digital comics and livestreamed cartoon draw-alongs with an expert cartoonist and Chinese teacher. 

I was really curious about ZZ, who always came up with really funny and creative ideas during every session.

So I called up her mom, Shimin Cheng, for a chat about creativity: how to kill it, and also how not to kill it.

Based on our chat,  as well as some thoughts based on my experience as a teacher, teacher educator and what I’ve seen in my daughter’s development as a creative kid herself, I distilled 5 Ways NOT to Kill Creativity in Your Kids!

#1: Create a Safe Environment

Shimin: We were living in Saudi Arabia when my daughter started school. She went to an American school where they encouraged creative expression without too much judgement about correct grammar and spelling.

It was a safe environment for her to write what she wanted to. We have since moved back to Singapore and the experience is quite different.

We have a friend whose son completed kindergarten in the US and returned to Singapore where he would write a lot because he had so many ideas, but because he is racing through his ideas, his mistakes would get pointed out quite a bit and he got demoralized.

Yen Yen: To build confidence, it’s so important to create an environment where risk-taking and making mistakes is celebrated.

As a teacher, I often had to hold back my more technical criticisms of my students’ work until there’s a level of trust. In language learning, early childhood educators also refrain from focusing too much on technique or grammar, in order to encourage expression.

The affective filter hypothesis states that variables such as motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety can play a large role in the development of a second language. For example, if anxiety is high, this emotion can block input to the brain. In a second language classroom, our goal should be to lower the affective filter so students are willing to take risks and make mistakes. We can do this by creating an environment where students feel safe. —Katie Brown, ELL Specialist

#2: Respond Attentively to Children’s Ideas

Shimin: The thing about Dim Sum Warriors is that it’s the opposite of that experience. Instead of prioritizing memorizing correct phrases over expression, Dim Sum Warriors focuses on expression. It’s a fun way to learn and ZZ gets really engaged.

She is doing the Dim Sum Warriors Club for the creative engagement as she enjoys drawing a lot, and even more, to get her imagination going with crazy ideas.

Yen Yen: Yeah, I know as the host of the Dim Sum Warriors Club jams, I genuinely enjoy it when kids suggest really out-of-the-box ideas. Every time that kids can put their crazy ideas on paper, and understand how crazy ideas become reality, I know they are gaining confidence in their ideas. As teachers, our role  is to build on kids’ confidence by being curious about their ideas instead of dismissing them, so that kids know we’re taking their ideas very seriously. Once our kids are confident of their own ideas, the world better watch out… these kids will change the world!

#3: Provide Loads of Opportunities for Mashing Up Disparate Ideas

Shimin: We used to send ZZ to art classes because she liked drawing, but in her art class, the teacher would impose a set view – like things had to be a certain color for example. That didn’t motivate her.  During the Dim Sum Warriors Club jam sessions, she’s always curious about what it’s like to mash things together. She’s always thinking “What would be really funny to see?” 

Yen Yen: We were actually quite inspired by our own daughter’s creative process when we came up with these mash-ups for the Club sessions. We saw that mashing up disparate ideas was a great source of her creativity.

I remember taking her to a Tim Burton exhibition when she was 7, and when she came back, she decided to try using his style to draw other cartoon characters! Mashing up is a form of experimentation, and she uses it in her stories and songs too.

Mashing up disparate things together is such a natural creative process—it’s there in remixing music, the pastiche in the works of Gauguin, Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein, the movies of Quentin Tarantino—and we have incorporated that zany spirit into every session of the Dim Sum Warriors Club. In fact, Psychology Today tells us that you can actually boost your creativity through the practice of combining disparate ideas. 

So the question that ZZ asks, “What would be really funny to see?” is actually a very, very powerful one!

#4: Build Intrinsic Motivation

Shimin: ZZ enjoys the funny banter during the CLUB jam sessions. She also likes the freshness of the stories in the App. And the puns! At P4, the kids start enjoying puns and Dim Sum Warriors has a lot of puns.

Yen Yen: In all aspects of the Dim Sum Warriors experience, we have deliberately worked on removing a sense of “points” and “grades” – I feel like children already have too much of that in their lives. Instead, we place a big focus on making kids laugh.

The science clearly shows that humor improves retention.  We want to make sure that at least in within the Dim Sum Warriors Club, kids are connecting the learning of languages and the creative process with a pleasurable experience. This builds intrinsic motivation.

…people will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself—and not by external pressures – Teresa M. Amabile, Harvard Business Review

#5: Find a Creative Community Beyond Competing on Very Narrow Terms

Shimin: In her Chinese classes, ZZ’s had to memorize a lot of 好词好句 (required vocabulary and phrases). And sometimes, you see all the kids in the class writing the essay the same way because they are all using the same memorized vocabulary.

Instead, Dim Sum Warriors has given ZZ a channel to show off her creativity. It’s a welcoming and supportive community and everyone is contributing. It’s a safe environment for her creative ideas.  She gets the feedback on her ideas, and nobody says any harsh things.  There’s no judgement.

Yen Yen: I have to confess that a big reason for the Dim Sum Warriors Club is because at one stage in my educational life, I kept comparing myself with others who were better in Chinese and somehow the idea that “I’m so bad in Chinese” grew in me.

I formed the mistaken impression that to be good in Chinese, I had to be really good at memorizing and my creative ideas had no place in the learning process.

But as I started teaching and learned more about different pathways to learning, I realized that there are far better methods. And in my own daughter, I saw how experiencing her second language is a tool for communication and also for creation, just like her first language, made her a much more powerful learner.   I see that creative power in ZZ’s thinking as well.

Dr. Yen Yen Woo, CEO, Yumcha Studios Pte Ltd.  Yen Yen works on educating for a multicultural and multilingual world through popular culture.  She most recently co-created the Dim Sum Warriors Club, characters and stories for Bilingual Learning. She has a Doctorate in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and has been a tenured professor of education. She is also an award-winning film director and screenwriter. Her works have been licensed by HBO and Netflix and featured on BBC, Fast Company, Wired, and other global publications. Email: yenyen@dimsumwarriors.com.

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