Is it possible to teach children without stifling their creativity?

When I teach piano to kids, I’m always aware of the push-pull between when they need to learn in order to improve, and their natural creativity. Curriculum alone will dull the joy in learning, but creativity by itself won’t get them to their goal either.

I used to love the “Peanuts” (Charlie Brown) comic strip when I was a kid. I’d read it in the newspaper every day and had a few paperback collections that I’d read and reread constantly. When I was about 5 or 6 years old, my parents announced that I was going to meet my great-grandmother for the first time. (She must have seen me as a baby, but I hadn’t met her since my memory developed.)

I was very exited and wanted to bring Granny a present, so I decided to make her a book of my favorite comic. Every day for about a month, I carefully cut out the Peanuts strip from the daily newspaper. Each day there were 4 frames which told a story in sequence. After I had collected a fair amount of these strips, I proceeded to cut out each individual frame. I then took pieces of paper, fashioned them into a book, and pasted the frames randomly on the pages in all directions and orientations.

I had so much fun doing this that I was only mildly surprised when every single adult who saw the book asked me the same thing, ” Why did you do it like that? Nobody can read the stories this way!”

I think I tried to explain a few times but then just shrugged my shoulders and thought, “Adults! They just don’t get it!”

I wasn’t trying to tell the stories in the same way that the comics were presented in the newspaper. I was going for an overall impression of delight.

Years later, the very last Peanuts comic strip appeared in a newspaper. I was thrilled that it was very similar to what I myself had created years before with my gift. Rather than tell a story, the final Peanuts comic strip showed glimpses of the major characters in random fashion. An overall impression of delight.

The question remains: When kids do something “out-of-the-box” like this, how do we react? How can we accept and encourage this type of creativity while at the same time teaching them essential skills such as narrative, math, and yes, the basics of piano playing? The teachers who can solve this question will be the brightest hope for each new generation of  young learner/explorers.

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