Sing A Song Of Learning


“I can’t carry a tune,” my daughter laughed – but continued belting out On My Own from Les Miserables – her intonation off on almost EVERY note! She’ll probably never be a singer – but singing and music may help her in some unexpected ways.

Music has the potential to unleash the creative potential in kids – and even better – may help them learn new material and retain it. This does not refer to the so-called Mozart effect in which just listening to classical music may improve performance on specific mental tasks.

My colleague, Keith Smolinski is a sensational science teacher at Amity Middle School in Bethany, Connecticut, and a gifted musician and composer. He composed The Cell Song to teach his seventh grade students some basic biology:


“….The lysosomes are janitors,

clean the cell for free……

Cells, cells, cells, cells

The building blocks of life

They’re in your pet and in your knees

In your toes and all the trees

Cells are in your families…”

I knew that students loved learning biology in Keith’s class, and that his use of song enabled the kids to really connect to the material and retain it. Imagine trying to take words like mitochondria and lysosomes and work them into a song – yet he does! Listen:

As my daughter methodically repeated a list of fifteen vocabulary words over and over again ad nauseam, I thought I’d give Keith’s idea a whirl.

Natalie and I watched the The Cell Song on YouTube – she immediately plugged in to the playful nature of the music and the seemingly effortless way words like vacuoles and ribosomes rhythmically were defined and explained.

So we jumped right in. First word on the list: “Versatile: Able to do many different things or be used in many different ways.”

Natalie sang the letters aloud and added hand claps: V-E-R…(3 hand claps)…S-A-T (3 hand claps)….I-L-E (3 hand claps). The melody she made up was very “singsong,” but it made us both laugh as she repeated it over and over. She then spontaneously got to her feet and pranced around the living room spelling out letters to the beat of the melody she had created. It’s fascinating how made up short songs or jingles (called earworms) get stuck in our head!

Try it now on your own: Take a word. Now make up a melody and repeat the letters playfully a few times so the melody sinks in. There’s no right or wrong on this one – especially if you’re like my daughter (and her father) who can’t carry a tune.

Step away from the blog. And make up a melody to go with the letters of any word….

How did it go? It’d be fun to get some feedback on what happened when you tried it yourself – or with one of your kids. Share it with us – click on the Read More at the end of this blog and then scroll down to Leave A Reply.

After Natalie had the spelling of VERSATILE down – she expanded the melody from the spelling to include the definition of the word. And she repeated it while parading from one end of our ranch home to the other. The learning of new vocabulary words became a playful creative activity – and the learning stuck!

This creative style of learning intrigued me, and I spoke with Keith Smolinski to find out more about it:

“Science can be a foreign language to some students, and music can break down the language barrier so the content comes easier to students,” he explained. “Think of music and why it hits you – the a-b-c-d alphabet song – there is something about the combination of rhythm and music together that sticks. Music can activate regions of the brain. Songs can help learn basic concepts, and help students retain certain things without having to just memorize.”

As we continued our discussion, Keith did point out, “Don’t put everything to music – I’m not saying that. But it can help supplement certain things by having kids get up and create songs and move. “

The idea of learning while moving (kinesthetic learning) is another fascinating concept that I’ll write about in another post – but for now I just want to add a vignette:

 When I was working at the Juilliard School, I staged Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium with the conductor Myung-hun Chung. We built a strong collaboration in part because I was staging my first opera and he was conducting his first one. Hun was also scheduled to conduct Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. One night he invited me to a dress rehearsal, and I was amazed as he conducted the entire score by heart. Afterwards I asked him how he memorized it all. Hun asked me to walk with him across the stage. As we did, he demonstrated to me what he did every day in Central Park before rehearsals: as he hummed the music – he changed the pace of his walk every time the tempi changed in the score.

As we continue to explore this relationship between creativity and learning – a huge thanks to Keith Smolinski for sharing his innovative ideas. I love the byline on his Smolinski Music page: Reaching Minds Through Music.

Here’s a link to Keith’s page:

And if you’d like to dig a little deeper into this fascinating field, Keith suggests you look at This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

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How About More Community-Wide Creative Activities!


As parents we do our best to encourage our kids creativity and their sense of exploration at home and in school. An often untapped venue lies in the amazing power of a community-wide creative activity!

Picture this: A hot, windless afternoon at the local pool. One week before the start of school. A resourceful father and educator organizes a community activity that challenges everyone’s creative skills and results in a celebration of innovation and play!

Anthony Taddei, who oversees the local pool program, has scattered flattened cardboard boxes of all sizes, assorted broken pieces of kickboard material and rolls and rolls of duct tape on the grass in front of the pool. Parents and children crowd around him as he explains:

“You have thirty minutes to design and build a boat using only what you see around you: cardboard, kickboard material and duct tape. The first boat – with one person on board – to go across the pool and back wins! Start building!”

Groups of parents and kids immediately start gathering materials and building the wildest assortment of floatation vehicles I have ever seen. The engagement and concentration is focused and, best of all, playful.

Even before reaching the water, designs soar and collapse – which leads to group discussions to discover alternative solutions to the problem.

Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the tab on our site “Getting Started Understanding Creativity.” If you haven’t seen it – here’s the link

Some of the important creativity skills noted by researchers include:

Produce and consider many alternatives

Be original

The community activity organized by Anthony Taddei incorporated those skills into a group activity. Sometimes we think of creativity as a solitary experience, but the power of collaboration can exponentially elevate the level of imaginative and innovative work.

There is increasing research in the field of creativity in groups that affirms how collaborative work can encourage and lead to the discovery of multiple and unique solutions to a given problem or situation. (For the fun of it – take a look at: Powers of Two – How Relationships Drive Creativity by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Shenk references neuroscience, cultural history and psychology to examine creativity – and along the way cites duos like Lennon and McCartney, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Pierre and Marie Curie.)

Now Back to the pool: The thirty minutes were up and parents and their kids carefully launched their “boats” in the pool water. And every device floated! …..but not all survived the test of floating with someone on board. Anthony Taddei blew his whistle – and the race was on between eight boats still floating with a passenger on board!

While one boat eventually crossed the finish line – the experience of families having fun and working together in a creative activity was the highlight of the day. And, as I learned afterwards – for some it was the highlight of the summer.

Every boat designed and assembled that afternoon was the result of collaboration and creativity.

As we continue to nurture the creative skills of our kids at home – let’s also take a lead from Anthony Taddei:

Let’s find more innovative ways to come together in community groups to exercise our creativity and stretch our imagination!


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What if…..Your Child’s Imagination Could Soar!

Nat Reading Turtle 16.9

Reading a story with your child, watching a movie together or listening to music with them all have the potential to take your child’s creative thinking skills to a new level.

Then by encouraging your child to respond thoughtfully to what they have read, heard or seen – you can also nurture the development of their imagination.

Asking your child, “What did you think about a book or movie?” often evokes a response such as, “It was good,” or “I didn’t really like it.”

When your kids are ready – my colleague Matthew Worwood suggests that you encourage your kids to take the next step: ask them how they would improve upon “the model” – in this case, what they have read (books), seen (movies) or heard (music).

If they are unsure of how they might improve upon someone else’s creation – try to engage them in a discussion that will prompt some responses.

My daughter recently finished a book that she didn’t like. When I asked what she didn’t like about it she said, “The ending.” This provided a great opportunity to go to the next level of analysis in an imaginative and playful mode.

I asked her, “If you could change the ending – what would you do?”

Sir Ken Robinson points out an important distinction between creativity and imagination in his groundbreaking book, “The Element.” If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Essentially it is about using creativity to find your true purpose – or element:

According to Robinson, imagination deals with thinking of something that is not there. So after Natalie finished reading the book, h20 the two of us tried to imagine a different and better ending. (Creativity, by the way, then involves doing something meaningful with your imagination.)

A great way to jumpstart the imaginative juices in your kids is to play a game of “What if….”

For example:

-What if at the end of the movie, E.T. – Elliot decides to leave on the spaceship with E.T.!

The possibilities are endless. As my colleague and school librarian Cara McConnell points out:

-What if at the end of The Giving Tree – he plants a new tree.

-What if at the end of Cinderella – the shoe doesn’t fit.

-What if at the end of Green Eggs and Ham – he doesn’t like them.

Be attentive to your child’s responses to books and movies and songs – and take the time to help them go beyond their initial responses.

This activity can provide wonderful opportunities for the two of you to engage in explorations that will broaden their imagination and further develop their creative thinking skills.

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Creativity and Stones

Heart Stones dw

I recently spent six days at Kripalu where a true visionary, John Milton, ( guided a group of sixteen people from across the country on an extraordinary spiritual practice in nature. John taught us the basics of Tai chi and Qigong in the mornings and in the afternoons sent us out solo into the surrounding hills of the Berkshires on a “sacred passage.”

Using Taoist teachings as a starting point, he instructed us in how to use our five senses (and more) to make authentic connections with nature. Slowly we began to respond mindfully (moment to moment) and not automatically to sights, sounds, smells and source messages in nature. I found it difficult at first to shed the patterns of response that often surround and protect me. The daily practice of Qigong enabled me to begin to interact with people, occurrences and nature in creative and perceptive ways that I had never experienced.

Or so I thought.

I realized that I had experiences similar to the ones I had a Kirpalu – when I was a young kid: Playing games and going on backyard adventures – making spontaneous and imaginative connections that amused, surprised and, at times, frightened me. The channels of creativity were wide open and flowing. Then school took over specifically around fifth grade – at a strict, tie and jacket all-boys school where hard work, strict regimentation and order were rewarded. Imagination and creativity were left to wither.

Before I left Kripalu, I found five heart-shaped stones that I planned as gifts for my wife and ten year-old daughter. I was drawn to one stone – it had the color of the night sky with a shimmering white line like a shooting star.

When I got home, I wasn’t sure how to give 5 presents to 2 people.

But my daughter did.

We went to my outdoor writing studio and I laid out all the stones and asked her, “Which one are you drawn to?”

Natalie quietly looked at the heart shaped stones – experiencing each in her own way. She picked the most colorful one. “It’s the most childish – see all the colors,” she explained. “Automatic connection,” she smiled playfully, pointing two fingers to her eyes and then toward her stone.

She patiently looked from one stone to the other, and discovered a creative order and design to them that was crystal clear to her:

“This stone is for Mom because it has two paths – the big path is the one she’s taken for family and the other path is a developing path for her new business.”

“Why are you smiling?” Natalie asked when she chose the night sky stone for me. “It’s my favorite,” I told her.

I saw Natalie was very focused, but also having fun as she teased a story from the stones in front of her:

“And you see,” she added, “My stone is a combination of the colors in yours and Mom’s – because I’m a combination of both of you!”

Here were the basics of visual literacy in the form of a creative activity:

Playfully she was utilizing creative thinking skills to explore and map out information in the form of an image.

Two stones remained on the table in front of us:

She chose a dark stone with a moon-like circle for my wife to keep in her truck – because she explained, “It’s like yours and it will remind Mom of you. And it has different patterns – and she looks for style when she hunts for mid century furniture.”

She chose the final stone for me – “Look – the sand colors are like the colors in my stone and Mom’s.” “Okay, can I go now?” she asked me – already through the deck door and on to something new…..

The stones from nature launched my daughter into a creative and intuitive activity which parallels the wonderful cloud game that my colleague Matt Worwood wrote about in his posting:

Visual literacy is a key skill today as information is increasingly exchanged in a digital multi-media format.

As parents we can encourage a wide range of creative thinking skills in our kids. One way is to become more present and patient as they explore and map out designs and ideas that spring from their imagination. These journeys often take routes that are beyond what we as parents can imagine – but that’s fine.

 -Nature provides endless opportunities for parents and children to expand their senses and to open and channel creativity into new and different ways.  

-Watch young kids play – they do this spontaneously and intuitively.

 -Encouraging creative activities can be a central focus of how we interact with our kids especially as they begin to inch away from us and shape their own identities.

 -As parents we sometimes have to be reminded of this as our kids leave their single digits and move into their tens and elevens where school regimentation and social pressure can inhibit their natural creativity.

 -Take as many adventures into nature with your kids as you can – and together you may discover new connections there.

 -As a parent be aware of how you might change the patterns of how you interact with your kids – to encourage more creative activities – and journeys that may take you and your kids to places you’ve never imagined.


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