When you ask your child a question, does he routinely give a single answer… and then stop? Is it hard for him to come up with a variety of ideas while taking on a new task, working on a project, or doing homework?
Choosing one solution without weighing the options of others prevents your child from exploring possibilities, and ending up with something even better. Having a flexible mind, on the other hand, allows him to be more creative, make more informed decisions, stand out from the crowd, and excel not only in school, but in every endeavor for the rest of his life.
A great way to practice this skill is through brainstorming. Bruce Van Patter, an illustrator and creative writing teacher for kids, says, “Most children, when trying to come up with an idea, grab the first one that pops into their heads. That idea is bound to be a common one; if it came that quickly to one child, it probably is readily available to the minds of thousands. Brainstorming moves kids past the obvious.”
How can parents help children learn how to brainstorm effectively? Here’s what Van Patter suggests:
Van Patter recommends providing an environment for your child that encourages the safe exploration of ideas. After all, brainstorming really isn’t just about the results; it’s about the process. It’s kind of like exercising the mind… doing stretches so that you become more and more flexible over time. That’s why people say, “There are no bad ideas when you’re brainstorming!” Obviously some ideas are better than others, but it’s important not to judge or criticize while your child is coming up with them.
Teach your child to think in terms of “no limits”. It might seem crazy at first, but why can’t he build a helicopter-sized model of a dragonfly for the science fair? Let him decide later if he wants to tweak the idea.
Next, you can help the process along by asking your child questions. “Questions can gently nudge kids to keep reaching for something different. A very helpful question is to ask is, ‘What if?’” Van Patter explains.
You could also ask questions such as, “What else could you try?” or “What other possibilities are there?” If it’s a report or essay he’s brainstorming, you could ask, “What else is important?” or “What would someone want to know next?”
Not all ideas have to be completely from scratch. Van Patter points out, “Creativity is more of a rearranging than a creating. A child can produce an original concept by combining two very ordinary thoughts. The originality comes through the unusual combinations.”
One way he has kids do this is to create a grid with one category of ideas down the side, and another across the top. Where each column intersects with each row will be boxes that create new ideas. For example, if your child is brainstorming a story for creative writing class, one category could be animals, and the other habitats. What story could be written about a bear who lives in a swamp? Or an elephant at the North Pole?
If your child’s too young to write, you can take note of what he says; otherwise have him write down all his ideas on a piece of paper. He might like to draw random circles on the page and write his ideas inside the circles, or he might prefer making a list, or a series of categorized lists. “Brainstorming works best when a whole slew of ideas are recorded, without much editing. The temptation will be to either off-handedly discard ones that seem useless or to stop too soon. Fill a whole page with ideas before sifting through to find that one concept that grabs one's attention. The bigger the stream of ideas, the greater the chance of finding that shining nugget,” Van Patter says.
After your child has brain-dumped everything he can possibly think of, have him take a short break. This allows him to see the results with a fresh point of view, and lets the subconscious mind start making connections and sorting through the ideas. When he returns, the last step will often come very easily.
Now’s the time to sort through the page and pick the best idea. If the brainstorm is for an essay or school project, have your child discard the weakest ideas, and divide the rest into topics and subtopics. If he drew circles, he can connect them up with lines and color them to group related ideas. With lists, he can draw boxes or lines to join certain concepts together, or use different colored highlighters to code them.
Once your child begins stretching and flexing his mind through brainstorming, you’ll find him constantly coming up with new and more creative ideas, and making better decisions as a result!