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Creative thinking skills help children overcome real-life problems

A new study from The Ohio State University demonstrates that promoting creative thinking in children can prepare them to become more resilient to real-life problems.

The researchers trained third, fourth and fifth graders to use literary techniques such as perspective shifting, counterfactual (what if) thinking and causal (why) thinking to improve creativity in dealing with everyday challenges.

New ways to solve problems

Professor Angus Fletcher said the techniques helped kids come up with new, creative and practical ways to solve problems.

“There are concerns about the resiliency of American children in the wake of COVID-19 and this sense that many kids are having a hard time in school and in life,” noted Professor Fletcher. “Creativity training can help kids come up with a second plan when things aren’t working out for them.”

Professor Fletcher said the program used in this study was similar to one he and his colleagues used successfully with the U.S. Army. That particular work earned Professor Fletcher the Public Service Commendation Medal, the fourth-highest public service decoration that the Army can grant a civilian.

How the study was conducted 

The research involved two separate studies focused on students attending a summer camp in a Columbus suburb. In the first study, students were split into two groups – a control group and a creative group.

The control group was asked to identify a special quality about themselves. They were told this was their special power that could help them solve any problem.

In the creative group, students were asked to think of a friend who did something special and think of them as their “creative friend” who could help them solve any problem. When children view a problem or challenge through the eyes of someone else, it is a creative process known as perspective-shifting.

“When you ask people to shift their perspective and imagine receiving advice from a friend, you get a lot more creative and effective solutions to problems than just trying to solve the problem yourself,” explained Professor Fletcher. This is exactly what the study demonstrated.

Anticipating everyday challenges 

As part of the study, teachers identified a problem that may be challenging for their students, such as not being able to attend a friend’s birthday party because they will be out of town. 

Students also thought about a challenging problem in their own lives, such as “my sister bullies me” or “my dad has to be away for two months.”

What the researchers discovered 

The results of the study showed that without the perspective-shift training, less than half of the students were able to provide a solution to an age-typical problem, and almost none were able to provide a solution to their own problems.

On the other hand, 94 percent of students who were trained in perspective-shifting provided a solution to both types of problems. 

According to Professor Fletcher, these results showed how creativity training could boost children’s sense of self-efficacy – the belief that they had some control and power over their own lives.

“Step back and say why does this matter? We often find that if you think more broadly about what you are trying to accomplish, and why it is so important, then you can see there are other ways of getting what you want.”

Testing resilience 

After the training was completed, students were presented with age-typical problems and also examined one of their own problems. 

In an effort to test resilience, the researchers had an expected response when the children presented their proposed solutions. They told the students that their solution would not work. 

Every student in the creative thinking group was able to provide a second solution to both the age-typical and personal problems.

“With this training, the children were unfazed by being told their first solution didn’t work. They came up with a second plan, which is a good test of resilience.”

Helping children cope with problems 

Professor Fletcher said this study provides a hopeful message: There are things we can do to help children cope with their problems.

“We are at this moment in our society where our kids need help. We found that before this training, kids had this propensity to just give up when faced with problems. That could lead them to get angry, or embarrassed that they can’t solve their problems, or look for adults to offer solutions.”

“What narrative creativity training can do is teach children there are ways to approach real-life problems that don’t have easy answers.”

Teaching creative thinking through the arts

Professor Fletcher explained that kids can learn creative thinking through the arts, such as literature and theater, if they are presented in the right way. 

For example, rather than just asking students to analyze works of art, teachers could have students imagine themselves as different characters, explore new perspectives, and engage in why and what-if thinking.

“The ability to use this type of thinking can’t be assessed via standardized tests. But it is still very important and can help children use and grow their creativity to solve real-world challenges.”

Professor Fletcher conducted the research with Ohio State colleagues Professor Patricia Enciso and Mike Benveniste, also of Project Narrative.

The study is published in the Journal of Creativity.


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