Play better: Kids' apps and creativity

When I see collage-making apps for kids, I smile. The premise is simple: kids make electronic portraits out of everyday objects, from celery stalks to recyclable bottles. These apps are based on the art of collage—to make something larger out of something smaller, to make a whole out of parts. So a celery stalk can be something other than a vegetable; it can be an eyebrow! To be able to see things in a new way, to create something new out of what has existed before, these hallmarks of creativity can be taught to your littlest learners. We just have to look for clever ways to help kids keep turning “functional fixedness” upside down or to name a popular movie, inside out.

Lots of apps are impressive because we admire the talent that created them, but a well-produced children's app doesn't mean it creates an opportunity for kids to be creative. Think of beauty parlor apps. Kids can have fun giving customers new hair colors and haircuts, but the opportunities for creativity are limited. For example, the app player may be able to paint nails, but the player is limited by, well, the act of painting nails. Such an activity loses its luster for kids pretty quickly I imagine. There are only so many colors, so many designs, before wanting to explore how to use the nail clippers.

Kids can be creative with an app that lets them give a mountain goat an orange mohawk, but fostering creativity in a child is another ballgame. That's why apps that give kids the opportunity to combine elements to make something new stand out to me. With respect to collage-making apps, kids are asked to be creative in the sense it is up to them to turn a glove into hair or a pair of dice into eyes. There's a joy for kids in the discovery of what they can create out of unexpected things!

I'm not suggesting kids can't be creative with salon-type apps, but if we want to use technology to foster creativity in kids, we need to think outside of the box. I suggest looking for apps that give kids the chance to be creators or producers (to borrow terms from education) or makers (to use popular lingo). Look for apps that offer ways for kids to use their creative muscles to create something new, such as collage-making apps, apps for kids that teach computer coding skills, or storybook-making apps. There's even a stop-motion video-making app for kids.

How do you choose among all the apps available? Ask yourself a few questions when you review kids' apps with respect to creativity:

          1) Does this app give kids the opportunity to make something out of more than one element? (More than one element is better: for example, will kids be able to put words with pictures?)

          2) Do kids need to think in order to make choices when they play the app? (Thoughtful choices are good: so if this code causes the light to blink, which code turns it off?)

          3) Is there a way for kids to save the final product and show it to family and friends? (Showing the result of hard work is good. For example, if kids make a comic book, can they print it?)

          4) Can kids use the app without posting photos online? (Some apps will pull photos from a device's camera roll for use in activities. Steer clear of the apps that make it easy for kids to post those photos online!)

If the answer is yes to these four questions, give the creativity-boosting app a try with your child. Explore the app with your child so you both understand how it works. Turn off or disable any online publishing or sharing capabilities unless or until you feel comfortable sharing your child's work online or from device to device. Lastly, make sure the device is charged so your kids don't lose their creations!

Shannon Mullally is an editor for School Zone Publishing, in Grand Haven, Mich. She has a doctorate in Creative Writing. Find her on Twitter @SMMullally. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent those of her employer.