Creativity and Children with Additional Needs

Parent Support Consultant Gill Gleeson takes a look at how to encourage creativity in children with additional needs.

Much thought goes into how to help children with additional needs develop life-skills and confidence, make the most of their education, access opportunities and attain as much capacity for independence, enjoyment and satisfaction as possible.  But what about helping them to adapt and respond creatively to changes around them in the future and even build and discover new things that inspire and make a difference to themselves?

What is creativity?

“Entrepreneurs don’t see barriers – they see around them – and think of different ways to do things” (Deborah Meaden 2015, speaking at the British Library).  What she is speaking of is creativity in her own field of business.  Creativity is often thought of in terms of artistic activities, but it is actually relevant to any type of activity.

Parents and carers of children with learning disabilities involving IQ below about 70 have sometimes been led to think that their children will not be very creative.  However, creativity and IQ are different.  Further, playfulness and spontaneity are associated with creativity but are not the whole of it. So it cannot be assumed that a tendency not to play or react in the same way as most (for example, with autistic features) is an indication that that creativity cannot occur.

So what is happening in creativity? Scientists are attempting to understand the process, operating within many parts of the brain at once (for example, Bob and Louchakova, 2015, also Boccia M. et al 2015).  In work to identify how and where it operates in the brain, some elements of the “circuit” involved are being identified.  It appears that very creative people can form and find associations between different things / ideas more easily and meaningfully, but can also be emotionally delicate which may get in the way of using them productively.  This provides some clues, as does listening to people known to be creative, who go through a process of mulling things over, looking for new angles / methods and experiencing inspiration about them from somewhere unconscious – sometimes called a “Eureka” effect.  Parts of the process have been seen happening in the brain using scanners (Andreasen, 2011).

Making use of a new idea (or movement, design, sound etc.) means taking it up as something that can be built on.  Expectations of children, for example in multiple-choice questions at school, tend towards the idea that there is only one real answer to a problem.  Children who see diverse possibilities will sometimes find it hard to pick the right one, as might those who have a condition that makes it harder for them to see the logic of what the school is looking for.  Taking up those other possibilities, and seeing where they go, might be one creative approach.

Bringing creativity through to producing results also involves wider skills, such as collaboration with others who think /move /construct /paint etc. differently but can think together; evaluating and exploring the answers (critical thinking); and asking questions about creative ideas, such as “does it work”, or “does it get to the goal”.  The inventor Thomas Edison famously said “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration”.  This combination is still being studied (Oleynick V.C. et al 2014).

There are children who are very good at thinking outside the box, but not so good at thinking inside it.  Because creativity involves moving outside the box, it may not fit in with others’ wishes (such as a teacher concentrating on a set curriculum, or a parent who does not want food wasted on making models).  So the creative person also needs some understanding of the box.

There is believed to be a dynamic between invention, connection / discovery and solution / critical thinking, and one between an imaginative approach to questions, knowledge / skill, motivation, and energy / persistence (Iowa State University, 2015).  Probably the more knowledge and/or skill a person has in what they are trying to be creative with, the easier it is for interest and inventiveness to be sparked.

Nurturing creativity

How can children learn creativity and have the confidence to use it?  As in anything, some will naturally find this easier than others. Educational approaches might be able to foster an exploratory approach to problems.  A non-threatening, non-controlling social environment is also believed to help.  Other suggestions include others explaining or showing how they create or combine ideas themselves, and encouraging the creative thinking even if it does not succeed in what the student was trying to do (Iowa State University, 2015).

The author J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay “On fairy-stories” gave an example of making up a story about a “green sun”. Obviously, the sun and the colour green are separate in reality. Creativity can begin by putting them together , then go on to weave a magical world in which the reader is led into a temporary but absorbing “secondary belief” (Tolkien 1974).  This process is an example of “synectics”, a way of generating and developing something new.  Related to it is the process of association, again leading to new combinations, not only when using words but also in doing anything creatively.

Gable (2015) describes ways to introduce children to these processes. She stresses the importance of having their ideas listened to, and again exploring alternative solutions.  Conditions that favour creativity include:  a chance to make choices from a variety of possibilities, for example about what to draw, what to use, how to do things.; the decisions people make as they paint, sculpt, write and think are at the core of the creative process; an environment that encourages and helps them to problem-solve; time for play and make-believe; some freedom, within limits of rules; and experience of different ways of being and thinking.  Whatever satisfies someone is more likely to be related to something they have a talent for, i.e. will be able to take further.  For example, if they enjoy the feel of clay they are more likely to want to experiment with making things out of it.

“Brainstorming” techniques seek to trigger creativity by free association of ideas, either completely freely or related to a particular subject, trying to make the mind wander and capturing what it finds.  Gable suggests encouraging children to tackle problems as a group.  Those with communication difficulties might find this easier one-to-one, or using a different medium such as art or toys.

Gable also lists barriers to creativity, some of which are surprising. For example, rewards and external motivation can lessen the key feature of enthusiasm for the creative process.  So can being compared with others, or being given too much in the way of adult direction or restrictions.  She describes the stages and processes that children go through as they develop in art; there are stages when they are easily discouraged and can be very critical of their own efforts.  They may need to be shown different examples of, say, art expressing the same idea, to illustrate that, again, there is not “one right answer”.  The adult’s response is a careful process so that on the one hand, the child is helped to find ways of developing and changing their creation but on the other hand, to feel positive about what they have already done.

A slightly more structured approach that has been suggested is to teach skills like divergent thinking, visual thinking and considering different points of view in a similar way to other subjects at school, and specifically encouraging children to experiment and innovate (Azzam K.M. 2009).

Providing more practical ideas would have made this article too long, but for those who would like to explore further, sources of ideas including the parents’ blog; courses are also available, for example the Earlyarts Power of Play course. For more on actions that can enhance creativity, see Techniques for Creative Teaching, by Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.


Andreasen N. C., (2011), A Journey into Chaos: Creativity and the Unconscious. In: Brain, Mind and Consciousness: An International, Interdisciplinary Perspective (A.R. Singh and S.A. Singh eds.), MSM, 9(1), p42-53.

Azzam A.M. 2009 September, Why creativity now?  A conversation with Sir Ken Robinson.  Educational Leadership 67(1): 22-26.

Bob P. and Louchakova O. 2015, Dissociative states in dreams and brain chaos: implications for creative awareness.  Frontiers in Psychology 2015;6:1353.

Bocchia M. et al 2015, Where do bright ideas occur in our brain?  Meta-analytic evidence from neuroimaging studies of domain-specific creativity. Frontiers in Psychology 2015; 6:1195.

British Library:  Innovation and Enterprise Team 20 November 2015, Top business tips from our panel with Deborah Meaden.

Gable S. et al 2015, Creativity in Young Children, Curators of the University of Missouri.

Iowa State University, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching 2015, Elements of creativity.

Oleynick V.C. et al 2014, The scientific study of inspiration in the creative process: challenges and opportunities.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 2014; 8: 436.

Tolkien J.R.R. 1974, Tree and leaf. London, Unwin Books.