Kids as young as 4 resemble adults in creative thinking

April 22, 2021
Preschoolers use adult-type reasoning to solve problems, so find a more secure cookie jar. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Preschoolers use adult-type reasoning to solve problems, so find a more secure cookie jar. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Humans use divergent thinking to work through problems creatively and find multiple solutions, a concept not well understood or widely researched in preschool-age children. Now, behavioral scientists have explored the thought processes of 4-year-olds from the Netherlands and provided the first empirical evidence that their divergent thinking shows "remarkable similarities" to what has been reported in adults.

A paper published March 17 in Thinking Skills and Creativity was the first study completed as part of a large longitudinal project, associated with the United Platform for Creativity in Education, that is investigating the development of divergent thinking in children from 4 to 6 years old. The authors found that 4-year-olds used both associative processes, which are automatic and unconscious, and executive processes, which are slower and more effortful, in divergent thinking when they were encouraged to explain their thoughts during an interactive task.

Honghong Bai, a Ph.D. candidate at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, and first author of the paper, explained to The Academic Times that the education system in China, where she completed her master's degree, has been criticized for placing a heavy emphasis on standardized tests and rote learning. Consequently, school education likely provides less support and training to students' creative thinking skills, which "actually matters more in the long term for students' development, given that good thinking skills enable students to understand and to learn new knowledge better and more easily," she said.

There has been little prior research investigating creativity in young children, Bai said, and no empirical study addressing the creativity process in kids as young as 4. This inspired her to design a creativity intervention program in 2013, known as the Learn to Think program for Preschoolers. It built off the previously established Learn to Think creativity programs for primary- and secondary-school students in China. Bai began her Ph.D. at Utrecht University in 2015, where she developed the longitudinal project and carried out the supporting studies. 

For the current study, the researchers employed the Alternative Uses Task, a widely established divergent thinking task that measures how people come up with original ideas. This involved showing pictures of everyday objects — for example, a brick, a toothbrush and a basket — to a sample of about 100 children. 

The children were prompted by the researchers to find unusual uses for each of the objects, answering questions such as, "What more can you do with a brick? Something different?" so that they were encouraged to come up with new ideas. The children were also asked about their thought processes, with questions such as, "How did you come up with that idea? Have you done that before?"

Some of the responses showed the thought processes that helped the children come up with their ideas, indicating that the children retrieved a memory of a prior experience, incorporated the elements present in the test environment or mentioned in their response that they performed mental operations on the object, such as disassembling, reassembling, turning, distorting or folding it.

The majority of the uses that the children came up with were based on a retrieval of a memory of a past experience, and these were mostly mundane, common ideas, Bai said, that, on average, were generated early in the children's thinking flow. "Occasionally, some uses were also generated based on performing mental operations on the object," she said. "These uses were usually more original, but they occur, on average, much later in children's thinking flow."

According to the paper, Bai and her colleagues concluded that the process of memory retrieval involved mainly associative processes, which occur unconsciously and automatically and require little effort, while the process of performing mental operations on the object was deemed to involve executive processes, which usually require more effort. These findings are consistent with the results of previous studies on divergent thinking in adults, indicating that, for adults and young children alike, novel idea generation in divergent thinking tasks involves both associative and executive processes. 

"We observed in our study that not all children were equally proficient in applying all identified divergent thinking processes," Bai said. "For some children, divergent thinking processes other than the process [of] memory retrieval, which depends on general, everyday experiences, did not even occur once."

The researchers also explored the relationship between the processes underlying idea generation and fluency and originality as performance measures of divergent thinking. Fluency refers to the total number of distinct uses participants gave each object. Originality, meanwhile, categorized given uses based on their type of action — actions that were taken less frequently by participants were considered more original. They found that the process of performing mental operations on objects predicted originality of ideas from the children, and that isolating and recombining properties of objects were essential for original ideas.

Bai noted that the collected data allowed the researchers to distinguish and conceptualize different types of thinking processes involved in divergent thinking in preschoolers. "This information could be used as a basic framework for teachers, curriculum designers and other educators to better understand children's divergent thinking and creative [behavior] in daily interactions, also pertaining to the inner thinking processes, which may differ from child to child," she explained. 

Such a framework could lead to the development of more adaptive and personalized instruction methods in creativity education, according to the authors. In particular, kindergartens or preschools could use it to design and organize activities that may stimulate certain types of thinking processes in order to facilitate young children's divergent and creative thinking.

There are two follow-ups to this study as part of the larger project, one of which was published this month in the Journal of Intelligence. Bai and her co-authors recommend that future research on divergent thinking in young children further investigate the process of creativity using tasks that more closely resemble real-life creation and innovation scenarios by asking children to solve ill-structured problems, for example. 

"As revealed in the follow-up study, the emergence of original ideas depends actually on a complex interplay of different thinking processes," Bai said. "In this regard, activities that stimulate children to combine the use of several divergent thinking processes in coming up with original ideas would be another critical step to take after children become skilled at using separate divergent thinking processes."

The study, "Divergent thinking in four-year-old children: An analysis of thinking processes in performing the Alternative Uses Task," published March 17 in Thinking Skills and Creativity, was authored by Honghong Bai, Hanna Mulder, Mirjam Moerbeek and Paul P. M. Leseman, Utrecht University; and Evelyn H. Kroesbergen, Radboud University. 

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