Creativity. It’s a strength that many of us wish we could cultivate in our kids. But how can we do it? After all, creativity is something that, by definition, cannot be taught. Or so you may think.

Dr. Nira Liberman, a psychologist at Tel Aviv University, set out with her colleagues to determine whether she could actually influence a kid’s levels of creativity. What they discovered seems more like a magic trick than anything else, and yet it’s backed up by solid research.

Liberman’s Research

In 2012, Liberman and her colleagues decided to focus on whether psychological distancing could actually increase creativity in children. They studied two groups of children, between the ages of five and nine, and showed each of the two groups a different progression of the same pictures. One group viewed a series of pictures that progressed from objects that could be seen nearby (e.g., a pencil on a desk) to objects that are in the distance (e.g., the Milky Way). The second group viewed the same series of pictures in the opposite order. The researchers then gave the children several questions to test their levels of creativity, and discovered that the first group performed much better.

When Liberman and her colleagues began their research, they based it on preceding studies showing that “psychological distancing” can affect creativity in adults. In fact, Liberman had worked together with colleague Oren Shapira in 2009 to show that adults who were told that some creativity questions had been devised in a distant city actually showed more creativity than those who were told that the questions had been devised nearby. Liberman had already taken part in a study in 2004 that examined psychological distancing in time, rather than in space. These types of psychological distancing – in time and in space – were shown to affect creativity in adults. And her most current research shows that this phenomenon applies to children as well.

At the same time, Liberman points out that this study is very limited. “I would love to replicate the study with other tasks, including tasks of creative problem solving,” she says.

What is Creativity?

So what exactly is creativity? Believe it or not, this question doesn’t have a simple answer. According to Dr. Liberman, creativity is related to intelligence, but the two terms are not synonymous. “Some researchers see it as a sub-type of intellectual abilities,” she explains. “Whereas some types of intellectual pursuit are ‘convergent’ – they aim at a particular response that can be easily verified and the route to which is specifiable (e.g., solving many school math problems) – creativity is divergent, meaning that the route to the solution or sometimes the solution itself are not easily specifiable. When you learn math – you learn a specific procedure, or class of procedures. When you learn creativity you do not learn anything specific – that is why it is difficult to teach it.”

Applying the Research

Although Liberman’s research is fascinating, it may seem that it cannot be applied in practice. After all, are parents and teachers supposed to show children a series of pictures before giving them anything to think about creatively? Obviously, the answer is more complex than that.

Here are several possible ways that parents (and teachers) can apply Liberman’s research:

·         Teach children about faraway places and diverse cultures. Understanding the various perspectives that exist in the world on issues that they may take for granted can expand children’s horizons and ways of thinking, another form of “psychological distance.”

·         Encourage children to think about how a situation might look from someone else’s perspective in order to give them some distance from the problem. For example, Liberman suggests that they might ask any of the following questions:

o   What does the other person feel and think?

o   What would somebody else think of the current situation?

o   What would an unbiased observer advise to do about this?

·         Encourage children to think about how they might think differently about a given situation a few years in the future, or how they might have thought differently about it a few years ago.

·         Show children how to move beyond themselves, and what is important to them at this stage in their lives.

·         Let children play games that involve imagination as much as possible, and to consider unusual alternatives to seemingly ordinary situations.

Liberman’s research also shows that the connection between psychological distancing and creativity is acquired at a young age – at least by the age of the children in this study. Perhaps the most important aspect of her research, however, is the fact that creativity can actually be a learned skill. “Many of us think of ability as being fixed, but mental functioning is very responsive to training and varies by situation,” says Liberman. In other words, when it comes to the nature vs. nurture controversy, it is important for parents to realize that creativity actually can be nurtured.

Therefore, open your child to new and exciting perspectives. Who knows? It may be this type of “psychological distancing” that gives them the creativity they’ll need to succeed later in life.