Creative classrooms don’t just happen. They are fostered, day by day, by teachers and administrators who truly value the (sometimes loud, messy and unpredictable) creative process.   As a public school music educator for 15 years I have worked with classroom teachers who set up their students for creative success and also those who have not. The difference is clear when they come to my classroom for music each week – I see it in the risks they are willing to take, the amount of struggle they can handle before getting frustrated, whether they see challenges as an opportunity or a burden, and even how they interact with each other.

While there is no one ‘right’ way to ensure that your classroom will be a place where children are encouraged to think creatively, here are some tips to set you and your students up for success:

#1 – Build A Strong Community

Children who feel safe, valued and an important part of their classroom community are more willing to take risks. Time spent getting to know each other, developing common agreements, understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses and just being silly together is never time wasted.

TIP Classroom communities begin in September, but need to be cultivated throughout the school year. I like to make sure I include one activity a month that has no purpose other than being silly and enjoying each other’s company. A good round of Mrs. Marbles (check it out on YouTube if you don’t know it) is always good for a laugh!

#2 – Encourage Exploration

How many different ways can you use pattern blocks? How can you create interesting, nontraditional sounds using classroom instruments? Some of the most creative ideas come up when children are just given a chance to explore. Go for quantity over quality here, as the best ideas are not always the first ideas! Seeing that there is more than one ‘right’ answer to the simple things will help them believe that is also the case with the harder things.

TIP – When I introduce new materials to my students, I give them an opportunity to just ‘fool around’ before getting down to business. I make sure and tell them any information they need to know to keep everyone and everything safe, but encourage them to try and find ways they could use the new tool in their learning. I ask students to share what they have come up with – and often borrow those ideas for future use! I know my students will make time to explore anyway – better to give them a chance before they take one during work time!

#3 – Resist The Temptation To Rescue

As hard as it is, avoid answering questions and providing solutions. Instead try asking leading questions or providing models of what others have done in similar situations.   Teach them vocabulary and technical tools when they actually need it and your students will never forget it. Remember, their song is THEIR song, not yours. Her story is HER story, not yours. The way your students solve creative problems will be different than how you would solve it – and that’s the goal.

TIP – When I have a student who is stuck coming up with an initial idea, I often ask them to close their eyes and imagine they had just presented their final product (often a song in my case) to an audience who loved it. I ask them to describe what the audience heard. It often is enough to get them out of their own way and to get an initial spark going.

#4 – Explicitly teach problem solving skills

What do you do when you are working in a group and have a creative disagreement? How do you choose which solution to choose when you have more than one that could work? How do you get through being stuck? Creative work means children will have to deal with barriers. They need to have some tools ready to use when they hit them. Model problems they might encounter and work together to come up with a variety of strategies they can use when needed.

TIP – A common problem I see is group decision making. Before getting to work on a group project, I will role play a problem and ask students to come up with possible solutions. We then chart their ideas and they end up with a “tool kit” of things to try if/when they run into a similar issue. When I see a group using one of the strategies I make a REALLY big deal of it. I want to be sure I reinforce that social learning, just as I would academic skill.

#5 – Celebrate

Celebrate the process, the product, the mistakes, the successes – all of it is important and deserves recognition! Find ways to share inside your classroom and beyond.

TIP – Create a process for giving feedback to creative work in your classroom. In my classroom the presenter tells the class a bit about what they are sharing and notes any specific areas where they are looking for feedback. I have a chart of sentence starters and encourage students to give three positives for every one negative. I also make sure I tell the students that the feedback they receive are only suggestions – as the creator, they can choose to use it or not.

As I said earlier, there are many ways to develop a creative classroom environment but the most important factor is YOU. As the teacher you set the scene and you guide your students on their creative journey. What do you do in your classroom to ensure creative activities are a success? What challenges have you encountered? Comment on this post and join the conversation! We’d love to hear from you!