You may have noticed by now that the possibilities for engaging children with music are endless. They invite creativity from each child and from you, the teacher. We are all creative. Making a shopping list is a creative act. Conversation is a creative act. But when creativity is connected to self-expression, it can become daunting, particularly in our culture, which can stifle creativity and self-expression. Here's a trick I learned from Nita Penfold, author of the Tapestry of Faith curriculum, Spirituality and the Arts in Children's Programming ,for making creativity flow. Think of creativity as a river: A wide river flows very slowly; a narrow river flows very quickly. If you ask children to write a song, but don't provide specific instructions, you give them a wide river; their creativity will flow slowly, if at all. If, on the other hand, you ask them to write a new verse for Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," using the names of places that Jesus visited in his many journeys, you create a narrow river and their creativity will flow very quickly.
Going back to the metamorphosis example, you can teach the children the basic vocabulary words that describe a butterfly's metamorphosis, like cocoon, chrysalis, metamorphosis, and butterfly. Write the words on paper and cut them apart. Add words like wings and fly, and then ask the children to assemble the words into a lyric, adding verbs, adverbs, nouns, and so on, to connect the thoughts. Each child literally lines up his or her individual words and rearranges them until they make sense to that child. It does, of course, help to demonstrate the step-by-step process first. In the end you will have the beginnings of an original song.
The beauty of creativity is that each child (or group of children) will create a different, original lyric. We are all different. Originality means nothing more than being yourself. (In my book, Music as a Way of Knowing, I included a chapter that provides step-by-step instructions for writing songs with children.)
Another essential ingredient of all creativity is a positive environment. If a child suggests an idea and another child makes a negative comment about it, the creativity is likely to cease. Why? Because creativity is linked to emotion. A negative comment does not injure the creativity itself; it is the emotions that shut down.
I see creativity from a spiritual perspective. In his epic poem, "No More Secondhand God," Unitarian Universalist thinker Buckminster Fuller said, "God is a verb, not a noun." I rephrase it in a non-theological way: The universe is a verb, not a noun. When I read Fuller's words as a sixteen-year-old, my life was changed forever. We normally think the word table describes a noun, but a table is actually made up of billions of whirling atoms in the act of being a table; from this perspective, table is a verb. This concept requires a paradigm shift. You go from seeing the earth as a planet with life on it (in other words, a noun) to seeing the earth as a living planet (a verb). The verb that is the universe is constantly evolving. The universe is creative. We take after our universe, but there's more. The universe is also compassionate, what scientist Brian Swimme calls "the ultimate compassion." The act of creativity, the act of making the world a more beautiful place, is a compassionate act. It is our gift to each other. (For those interested in learning more about this and other paradigm shifts, I strongly recommend a simple book by Brian Swimme called The Universe Is a Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story.)