Creative thinking, concerning the innovation of new ideas and the ability to think about things in new ways, whilst sometimes seen as a welcome yet mysterious and vague skillset on the periphery of a child’s core education and development is, in fact, no less of an essential skill for its perceived intangibility. Not only can creative thinking be used to enhance a breathtakingly broad range of subjects; providing perfect opportunities for a child to employ their HOTS (higher order thinking skills), but it’s development can also have a positive effect on a child’s general wellbeing. It is also much easier to track and support development in this area than might be assumed, so whatever stage a child is at in their creative thinking journey, they can be helped to develop their skills further and to reap the benefits of doing so.

What is Creative Thinking?

Concerned with the innovation of new ideas and the ability to see things from a new perspective, creative thinking is often characterised as “thinking outside the box”, but, in fact, incorporates a whole lot more than that. It is about meeting challenges and making connections, as well as finding new and unusual solutions to problems, and spans an area larger than might be first imagined.

Creative thinking skills are applicable not just in the more artistic subjects, but are key in STEM subjects, problem solving and many other areas, too. They are also very individual. Different personalities will have different styles of creative thinking. Indeed, whilst one person’s creativity may indeed take the form of the archetypal breaking out of the box, others might be just as creative inside the box, improving and innovating from within: so-called “thinking better inside the box”.

Certainly, creativity of thought is a lot more than just the cliché of “blue-sky thinking”; it is something that anyone can learn, from whatever starting point they are at, in a way that suits their existing skills and personality, applying it to myriad areas of their life.

Key Features of Creative Thinking Include:

Imagination and Curiosity

The ability to invent new ideas and concepts, and the capacity and desire to enquire and investigate.


Even before the creative stuff, there must be an understanding of the topic/issue.


A willingness to think in a new way and to free yourself from prejudices and biases; a certain flexibility when it comes to thinking.  A corollary to this is self-confidence: a belief in oneself is key to having the confidence to break from convention and take risks by positing ideas that might be different, unusual or unconventional.

Problem Solving

Finding a new way to solve an issue is a key part of creative thinking.

Self-Regulation Skills

Having the kind of self-regulation skills involved in organisation, time management and dependability; skills that assist in the honouring of commitments and following a project through to its completion are also important, even though they may seem contrary to creative thinking. In order to carry out creative thinking to its resolution, thoughts need to be understood, organised, and focused on the ultimate goal of the project, even if the creative process itself seems a lot messier and much more of a free spirit. It is the self-regulation skills that can ensure the successful completion of the creative task, whether it feels mad and messy along the way, or not.

Social and Communication Skills

Even when creativity of thought is being applied in an essentially individual endeavour, it is unlikely to be truly effective without the employment of active, effective listening skills at the start that will help to understand the brief. Only with good interpersonal communication skills can any end-result, any creative solution, be properly understood and appreciated by others. Moreover, creativity of thought can very often be collaborative, thereby deepening the importance of communication skills, as well as requiring leadership skills.

How Does it Develop?

The good news about creativity is that it is not some ethereal entity with which one must just hope to be endowed. No gods need smile down; creativity can be developed and supported from whatever starting point a child is at.

Skills Builder have set out a clear and simple map of the progression and development of creative skills, in 15 steps (or 16 if you count step 0!). The clarity and scaffolding that these steps provide help to remove many of the barriers to the development of creativity of thought. The task is no longer both daunting and unclear, and thus productivity and progression are suddenly so much more possible.

The early few steps allow for even the youngest of children to find themselves on the exciting path to creativity. They are set out as follows:

Step 0 – I imagine different situations

To achieve Step 0, individuals will have to be able to imagine different situations. This is the first step in Creativity – the ability to imagine things that do not currently exist. It provides the foundation for everything that follows.

Step 1 – I imagine different situations and can say what I imagine

To achieve Step 1, individuals will be able to imagine different situations and be able to say what it is that they are imagining. In the previous step, the focus was on being able to imagine different situations. This step builds on this by adding the ability for individuals to be able to say what it is that they are imagining.

By the middle section of steps, a child will be starting to use creativity in the context of their work, moving on to using it in the context of their wider life, and starting to use mind mapping techniques to help them further develop their ideas.

Going towards the latter stages, a child will be showing that they are developing their creativity by asking questions, considering different perspectives and using their creativity in group contexts.

By the final few stages, the emphasis is on creativity in the context of leadership skills and the supporting of others’ creativity.

Step 13 – I support others to innovate by sharing a range of tools

To achieve Step 13, individuals will show that they can support others to innovate by sharing a range of creative tools.

Up to now, the focus has been on equipping the individual to be a creative and effective innovator…. In these final three steps, the focus is now on how to support others to become more creative.

Step 14 – I support others to innovate by evaluating the right creative tools for different situations

To achieve Step 14, individuals will be able to evaluate the right creative tools for different situations. 

In the previous step, the focus was on the range of creative tools that could be useful to share with others. This step builds on that by focusing on how to pick the best creative tools for the right setting.

Step 15 – I support others to innovate by coaching them to be more creative

To achieve Step 15, individuals will show that they can use coaching as a means of supporting others to be more creative.…This final step of Creativity draws together all of the learning that has happened so far, and focuses on how to support creativity in others.

The skills builder website sets out the building blocks for each particular step of development, as well as a set of reflection questions at each stage, too. In this way, it is a simple process to track and support a child’s creative development.

Further Ways to Support the Development of Creativity of Thought


Ask many and often, even ones that seem silly; obvious even. They are often the best at getting to those truly lateral, imaginative trains of thought. In many ways, that perpetual toddlerdom of persistent “whys” are what, at a simple but important level, stimulate creative thinking. Ask a million “what ifs”. Forgive the corporate connotations now attached to the concept of “blue sky thinking” and earnestly ask that exact question and others like it: “why is the sky blue?”. Great questions that stimulate creative thought often start with “How could…”,”What might” or “Suppose…”.

Time and Space

A child who has free, undirected playtime, who is allowed to be bored, even, is a child with more chance of allowing creativity of thought to reign. Give them that time and space to ponder, innovate, and explore, and their creative thinking skills will reap the reward (as will the parent with the excuse for five minute’s peace!). and bite the bullet and embrace the mess; it really is all part of the creative process! The great outdoors is also fantastic, with limitless possibilities for imagination, discovery and creativity.

Take a Step Back

Give children time to work through any problems themselves; it won’t help them to build up their creative thinking skills if someone is always on hand to troubleshoot: the trouble is what will get those creative, problem-solving juices flowing!

Provide Opportunities to Build Up Their Knowledge and Experiences

Whether it’s regular trips to museums and galleries, online courses, books, books and more books, or anything else that expands their minds, it is all grist for the creative mill.

Growth Mindset

Praise and encourage effort and persistence, not achievement, in order to combat any inhibitions about going out on a limb and trying something new or unusual. Without the development of that courage to posit the unconventional, their creativity is unlikely to thrive. Model a healthy “try new things and be happy to fail” kind of approach and make mistakes a welcome part of the creative process. It may be a cliché, but failure really is feedback for creative thinking. Help them to reframe failures as exciting, as a necessary springboard to future success. Demonstrate the kind of attitude that accepts ambiguity and is salutary to setbacks. Simply ask: “what can that mistake tell us?”; “how can it help us going forward?”. Model an attitude that reassures them that there is nothing to fear from mistakes, only much to learn!

Break the Rules!

Literally! Change the rules a little of a favourite game, or figuratively, have a summer-style picnic in midwinter (and cosy coats, of course!), say good evening in the morning; discuss how the world would be if everyone did the opposite to the usual. Consider different uses for everyday objects. Make up stories together and make them unconventional: have the monsters scared of the princesses, the flowers bigger than the trees and the whole world inside out if you want. However you do it, have some fun and break out of that everyday thinking.

Pretend Play

For younger children, but older, too if so desired! Not only is pretend play great for the imagination, but it also helps with the stepping stones towards empathy, by putting themselves in other people’s shoes. This, in turn, can aid their creative thinking by helping them to hone their problem-solving skills and the process of starting to think of different ways of doing things. It also has the added benefit of helping their emotional intelligence, too.

Look out for Barriers

It can take a certain amount of confidence or encouragement for some children to feel comfortable with the idea of putting things out there when there is no definite right answer, or when the object is to be unusual. The rising tide of pressure to conform as they move out of their early years can mean that a child’s creativity wanes. Being aware of the effect of peer pressure on their creativity is the best first step in supporting them in this area and keeping that creativity alive. Helping them to build their confidence and self-esteem; their contentedness in both their own unique selves and their unique and creative thoughts and ideas not only helps their creativity of thought, but benefits their wellbeing in the wider context, too.

If it looks like a fear of failure is holding them back from expressing their creativity with that reluctance to go out on a limb, then head back to the development of a growth mindset, addressing any such anxieties by modelling failure and demonstrating a happiness to be silly and playful with ideas. Confidence is, again, key. Providing a safe place to put out those silly ideas, and making it the norm, will help them to overcome such barriers. Indeed, once overcome, the surge in self-confidence that so often comes from the expression of their creative thought quite often repays that initial leap of faith, and repays handsomely: it can open up an entire world of confidence not only in creative expression but in themselves as individuals.

It is also worth being aware of the limitations in developing creativity of thought in a school setting. The simple, yet universal, restrictions of time and resources can mean that a child’s creative individuality cannot be encouraged as much as either parent, teacher, or child might like. Parents can make up for this by supporting their child’s creativity of thought at home.

Why is it Important?

Perhaps particularly welcome for children with high learning potential, the increase in confidence in the concepts of originality and individuality can help a child to not only stand up for their ideas, however unusual, but also help them to express themselves, and stand up for differences in other ways. It is an excellent education in resilience, having the confidence to challenge conformity, and in how to be comfortable with being a blue-sky person to match the thinking.

The development of the skills involved in creative thinking can also confer to a child a very welcome sense of agency and control. The empowerment that can come from the ability to come up with creative solutions to problems, limits or limitations rather than feeling overwhelmed by them, can have a significantly positive effect on a child. Not only can this aid relaxation and reduce stress, but the sheer act of creation itself can also be immensely therapeutic, and the process can be playful and fun, so the benefits are many and varied. The way in which creative thinking can begin to break down the barriers of a fear of failure is also not to be underestimated.

In addition, the skills are also important in avoiding the impotence of obsolescence: what a child learns as a student can become obsolete by the time they are ready for the world of work, but creativity of thought can help a person to adapt to the fast-moving and ever-changing world, opening up a space to be flexible, and to be comfortable about that flexibility.

They are also multidisciplinary skills: you get good value for money when it comes to creativity of thought. It is not confined to just one subject or even just one area; it will help almost universally.

Other benefits include:

  • Development of social skills
  • Development of language and communication skills
  • Development of leadership skills
  • Challenge, complexity and texture for high potential learners; can aid interest and engagement
  • Success in workplace
  • Innovation and invention.


Whatever starting point a child is at, their creativity of thought can be developed in order to help them to build a whole range of skills that can be applied in a whole range of different areas. It is simultaneously the retention of that wide-eyed, young child-like curiosity and sense of wonder and yet also the development of complex communication and more mature self-regulation skills. It may initially require encouragement and support to have the confidence to speak up with those “out there” thoughts, but from there it can help to build on and build up that confidence. The skills are important in the arts, yet essential in STEM subjects and innovation, too. With the scaffolding and reassurance of well set out, realistic steps on Skills Builder, all of these wonderfully diverse and sometimes even seemingly contradictory benefits can be worked towards for every child, wherever they may be on their creative journey.

To discover more about developing creative thinking skills see the blog Creative Thinking Skills: Activities for Arts to Sciences.


skillsbuilder logos for aiming high, creativity, problem solving, staying positive, teamwork

Further Resources:

Skills Builder Partnership:

About the author: Caroline Hooton-Picard is an adviser for Potential Plus UK. She has a background in mental health, having worked for Suffolk Mind and also in private practice, and has a first class degree in Philosophy from the University of Essex. She also has a High Learning Potential daughter who keeps her very much on her toes!