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divergent thinking: why it’s important, and how to promote it in young children

Divergent Thinking is to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions, using left and right brain thinking. It may be free-flowing, less ordered, non-linear, and more spontaneous. It supports out-of-the-box thinking.

Highly creative or creatively gifted people are divergent thinkers - like genius artists and inventors of the past - programmed to question rules and the status quo, to seek out and ​argue toward new possibilities and solutions, to create and inspire. Divergent thinking patterns are found among people with personality traits such as nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, and persistence.

An enormous amount of research has been done on divergent thinking. Studies conducted by a Cornell University research team in 2012 found that divergent thinking improves language proficiency and performance. That same year, psychologists from the Netherlands revealed that divergent thinking leads to positive mood swings. Scientists have also found a positive correlation between divergent thinking and entrepreneurial potential.

Divergent thinking in children is an exceptional gift. Their open minds are full of possibilities and unusual, original, and constant idiosyncratic reasoning. Pre-schoolers are real geniuses, and score exceptionally high on divergent thinking tests. However, if there are no adequate stimuli, cell pruning – a natural process that occurs in the brain between early childhood and adulthood during which the brain eliminates extra, unused synapses – will limit a lot of the child’s learning potential as time goes by.

In society we place a lot of value on convergent thinking, on quickly finding the one correct answer and then moving on. Convergent thinking is easy to measure and easy to test. While children need the skills for both convergent and divergent thinking, divergent thinking is often undervalued and not as fully developed or realised as possible. At Skippy’s, we use a range of programmed activities. child-led play-based learning, loose parts play, and other techniques to support divergent thinking in our children.

Here are some things you can do to support and promote divergent thinking in your children:

  • Ask open-ended questions.

  • Have the child lead their own learning, develop and ask their own questions to a problem.

  • Teach children how to form and test a hypothesis.

  • Role model divergent thinking and problem-solving.

  • Problem-solve using divergent thinking as a family, for example with a family problem we can brainstorm, workshop or mind-map to stimulate ideas.

  • Use lots of divergent thinking in everyday life, take risks - build our own cubby house rather than a store made kit, design our own meals/desserts/smoothies rather than use a recipe.

  • Use child-led process art where the focus is on the process not on the outcome.

  • Provide open-ended toys, and don’t dictate or assume how these toys will be used and played with

  • Allow for, provide for and support the child's independent exploration and experimentation (creativity) as much as possible

  • Take a Makers Approach - Build things, repair things, make sketches of ideas, make models.

  • Include recyclables and loose parts in play and learning.

  • Be open to the child's ideas and don't close down new ideas or thought processes. Support risk-taking in thought process by accepting and embracing mistakes and ideas that don't work out.

  • Support the child to feel accepted and their thoughts and ideas valued. When having family discussions it's easy to dismiss younger children's suggestions, but these must be valued.

  • Embrace creativity as much as academic success - don't focus only on test results as this is not always a true reflection of the child's thought processes or what they are capable of.

Finally, it should be noted that encouraging and protecting divergent thinking doesn’t mean that you should attempt to completely eliminate convergent thinking. There are many problems that require a specific solution. The key is to balance convergent and divergent thinking, and to help children understand when it’s appropriate to apply them.


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