If you have young children in schools, anywhere from kindergarten to twelfth grade, chances are you know well that anxiety in our children has been surging to a startling degree for several years. 

I know this trend well, since I have headed four private schools in four cities over the past twenty years—in Chicago, Seattle, Houston, and now Dallas. We all know the madness and hysteria within the college admissions process. I know this up close: I served as Headmaster at Lake Forest Academy, the prep school north of Chicago, and then became Head of Upper School at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas. But the stressors these days go well beyond college admissions, and the anxiety is hitting children at much earlier ages. Among the culprits: Parental pressures to achieve; keeping pace with social media; the preponderance of video game violence; overscheduling; encountering friction with one’s personal identity; and the ubiquitous media attention on tech upgrades and the consumerism of youth. 

Many branches of the medical profession, and an immense span of psychiatric and psychological interventions, are all doing what they can to respond to this malady of anxiety. However, as an educator, what I have to offer all my families and the hundreds of children in my care is something nobody out there in the professional medical world can offer. It’s not a panacea; it’s not a replacement for the heart and expertise of all the fine doctors and counselors serving children; it’s not a turnkey solution nor an amazing new app. In fact, it doesn’t even cost schools anything. 

What I have to offer is the act of awakening the imagination. Giving our younger student throughout the K-12 years as many opportunities to be creative as possible will give our children, our pre-adolescents, and our teenagers a pathway to a healthy sense of purpose and identity. 

I’m not talking about adding more art classes, although art classes are becoming more of a precious commodity within the school business as many are being snuffed out of the program to make way for computer classes, coding, robotics, STEM and the like. Nothing wrong with those courses, but creativity infused throughout the school experience, in all subjects, will add humanitarian heft to the skills they are learning. 

The vortex of creativity in schools should be its reading and writing program. Take kindergarten for instance: When it comes time for the teacher to read a book to the little ones gathered closely on the throw rug, it’s never a straight read-through. Children are asked to guess what the book is about by looking at the cover or thinking about the title. They are asked to guess what will happen next before the pages are turned. They consider what challenges this character or that animal is facing, and what the outcome might be. Often, when being read to, our students will each have a blank piece of paper and crayons or colored pencils, and they will be given a moment to draw their prediction of what happens next, or draw a character who can help solve the problem. Kids are thinking, creating, engaging, imagining. Creativity allows children to invest themselves in the learning process, whereby they gain the kind of confidence to tap into their own strengths and talents.

A school’s writing program needs to be comprehensive, cross-curricular, and it should begin in the early years with hand-writing, where the brain’s connectivity between hands and ideas, between fingers and images, is strengthened, increasing the number of synapses between neurons. Our children today need pincer strength more than ever, as the availability of touch screens in the early childhood ages are producing fingertips sliders as opposed to pencil-grippers. And that’s a sad phenomenon these days, to see so many children reacting with hostility to pens and pencils. That’s why in Levine’s early childhood grades, all of our children are learning how to strengthen their hands and fingers; fine motor skills are factored into nearly every lesson we do.

Once their handwriting habits are established, it’s off to the magical world of creative writing: creative responses to the literature they are reading; giving creative voice to those on the Lewis and Clark expedition in social studies; creating an entirely new and plausible eco-system in science; creating sequels to the stories they are reading in language arts. Often I hear parents wonder whether creativity is a mushy, nonsense activity that avoids teaching proper structure in writing. Nothing could be further from reality. Our third graders are learning essay structure mostly from creative writing, such as when they are writing in their Drafting Booklet the beginning, middle, and end of their imagined problems, such as “Why Flamingos Stand on One Foot,” “Why Elephants Have Long Trunks,” “Why Cats Have Whiskers,” “Why Penguins Can’t Fly,” and the like. These spunky essays are completely and amazingly imaginative, yielding many pages of astonishing creativity, and yet at the same time they are learning the structure of an argumentative, explanatory, and expository essay.

Creativity should not stop at the lesson plans. Creativity can be a part of one’s physical learning environment. In our fifth and sixth grade math classroom, the furniture and environment are creative, innovative, and multi-functional. In an effort to assemble contemporary learning spaces conducive to enhancing the attentional and creative needs of children, we have turned to NorvaNivel, a company founded in Sydney, Australia but now headquartered in Dallas. NorvaNivel is dedicated to researching today’s learners and creating classroom solutions that encompass the key principles of collaboration, critical thinking and creating thought. The results have been spectacular—mobile table tops where students can arrange into café-style seating, or sit on high chairs at taller surfaces, or rock on wobble boards, or flip the unique geometric-shaped cushions into seating that supports proper posture. The many colors in the room, the changeability of the arrangements, the dry-erase surface upon every table-top have created a room with engaged and focused math students for every minute of the period, and a transformative improvement in what students are able to accomplish. 

These inspiring classroom settings have age-appropriate versions, and our school is on a strategic mission to transform our youngest learners in our early childhood program all the way through to our middle school students. Our middle school students are creating their imagined structures and dabbling in coding, robotics, and engineering in a creative Makerspace that will keep our students inspired through graduation day, and beyond.

Creativity starts at the apex of learning, and that would be the teachers. The spirit of collaboration, of crafting solutions, of creative thinking, emanates from teachers who practice design thinking when immersed in curricular problem-solving. When teachers identify the challenges they see in their students and throughout society with younger children, and brainstorm creative solutions, they are constructing little, but powerful classroom societies of support for children. 

A childhood enriched by creativity can provide a healthy, confidence-building, identity-affirming foundation to help one navigate successfully through the distractions, pressures, and stressors that lie ahead. 

Tom Elieff has headed five private schools–covering early childhood, elementary, middle and upper schools–in Chicago (Lake Forest Academy), Seattle (The Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle), Houston (Beth Yeshurun Day School), and Dallas (at St. Mark’s School of Texas’ as Upper School Head, and since 2014 at Levine Academy, where he currently serves as Head of School). In April of 2019, he was honored at the American Writers Museum gala in Chicago with the first-ever Inspiration Award—selected by best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Finalist Rebecca Makkai who was his AP English student at Lake Forest Academy.