by Hanna Vock, Anja Kintscher and Heike Brandt


We consider creativity a significant part of giftedness.

See also: Giftedness – A Definition

What defines a creative person? We all are, to a degree, creative beings whenever we don’t work by template: when freely arranging a bouquet of flowers, writing a letter, cooking creatively or crafting freely, following our own intuitions. This is what Csikszentmihalyi (see Bibliography) calls „small creativity“. In contrast, “great creativity” occurs when discovering or creating something groundbreakingly new in a certain domain – something that affects many people’s lives: a scientific discovery, a new method of surgery, a new economic or political concept or a greatly acclaimed piece of artwork.

… in short …
Gifted people are capable of an extraordinary degree of creativity. This article discusses M. Csikszentmihalyi’s statements, who, in the course of his scientific work, interviewed a range of very successful creative people. Csikszentmihalyi concludes from these interviews, that such people integrate conflicting personality traits leading to a broader range in the ability to think and act.
This article finally draws conclusions with regard to the work in kindergartens and pre-schools: What exactly is necessary in order to support and increase the creativity of gifted children rather than constrain it?

How great and innovative the creative achievements of a child will one day be we can hardly foresee, it depends on many factors. However, to us it appears to be of major importance how much or how little the creativity of a child is appreciated from early on. This applies to all children. Yet, gifted children will at a very early age display creative thinking and acting almost habitually and will therefore soon be experienced as bothersome by their environment. The creative part of their thinking and performing appears to be much larger than that of their mimetic thinking and performing.

Gifted children urgently need kindergarten teachers who are able to notice and encourage this characteristic trait.

For his renowned book “Creativity – Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention“ the author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed numerous very successful creative people and had them describe what drives them and what they feel when working. These are men and women who have discovered or created something completely new or revolutionary in their fields.
We can learn from them about the characteristics of highly creative people and about what leads to their success.

Csikszentmihalyi’s remarks on the complexity of personality traits, which he bases on the interviews have proved to be especially insightful for our work with young gifted children. We are referring to the chapter “The Creative Personality” here.

„If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it would be complexity. (…) They contain contradictory extremes (…) usually we are trained to develop only one pole of a dialectic.” (p.57)

Thus he defines creative people not by specific personality traits which do not occur in other people, but by the complexity of personality traits, with opposing extremes being integrated.

People of average creativity will develop only one aspect of these personality traits, the other tends to wither. With highly creative people the chances of both conflicting poles of an ability being fully developed are much greater, which leads to a much greater range in performance options. They can either fall from one extreme into another or perform intensely in both extremes.

In his Einstein-Biography (see Bibliography), the author Juergen Neffe writes about ”an extremely broad range of character“:

„A man, bourgeois and bohemian, superman and misbehaved child, all in one person… a friend to one, an enemy to another, a narcissist ignoring his outer appearance, a sonnyboy and a rebel, a philanthropist and autistic individual, a globetrotter and a hermit, a pacifist and a scientist for the military.” (p.11)
[A narcissist is a conceited, extremely egocentric person with an overwhelming adoration for him-/herself – the term is derived from Greek Mythology: son to the greek river god Cephissos, who fell in love with his reflection in the water.]

Csikszentmihalyi lists ten dimensions of complexity and illustrates and exemplifies them with numerous examples. In the following section we will summarize his statements about these dimensions. It must be pointed out, that these statements refer to successful creative adults. From these we try to derive guidelines for our pedagogic work.

The 10 Dimensions of Complexity (acc. to Csikszentmihalyi)
– summary –

1) Highest Level of Concentration vs Effective Relaxation

Successful creative people often use their energy without ignoring space and time, seemingly without tiring. They recharge their energy-levels during those moments which they demm it pointless to spend energy on; for example they avoid putting energy into everyday chores. This enables them to project an aura of freshness and enthusiasm in important situations (Csikszentmihalyi). Whenever possible they do not submit to outer constraints but regulate their energetic output independently. They mostly maintain control of their resources quite well.

This applies to our work in daycare as follows:

  • The children should not be torn out of their creative flow (being completely absorbed and highly concentrated in an activity) without good reason, when they are engaged in an activity that highly interests them. Any other activity will not be of interest to them at that time.
  • There should be space and time for retreat at any time – for both concentrated work as well as for periods of rest.
  • Very young gifted children are yet to learn how to manage their energy efficiently. They will oftentimes wear themselves out, completely immerging into a discovery or thought process and the resulting feeling of enthusiasm and find themselves still on edge late at night, not being able to relax, still all excited about experiences made that day – such matters could be a question, a case of injustice, an insight or another matter. It is pointless to try and force rest at this point. (See also: Little Need for Sleep?) Accordingly, they appear to be quite weary the following morning.
  • Gifted people often recreate in a very sophisticated manner, as for instance Einstein, who played the violin – yet, by the same token they will act childishly or foolishly sticking out their tongue.

2) Wisdom vs Childishness

Successful creative people are both sophisticated and naive. They display a broad range of knowledge or wisdom and seem to have preserved their childlike sense of awe, their ability to be amazed.

They are able to utilize both, divergent (flexible, original, diverging from the familiar), as well as converging (using and applying already existing good ideas) thought processes quite well.

The successful and creative individuals distinguish themselves in that they soundly select realistic solutions to relevant problems from the effervescent variety of their ideas, i.e. they come up with ideas either directly applicable or truly ahead of their time.

This applies to our work in daycare as follows:

  • Babies are the best amazed gazers: The diameter of their pupils seems to double when they discover something unexpected, amazing or new. Only if we permit ourselves to be amazed with the same openness and impartiality will we encourage a five year old to believe that amazement or being in awe isn’t stupid but even cool.
  • Open questions, worth discussing or reflecting upon, should be the most frequently asked questions in daycare, both among adults and children. (See also: Learning by Asking Questions.)
  • The commonly described precocious characteristic of gifted children is, respectfully speaking, an early stage of wisdom. Those who try finding solutions to problems at an earlier point in time than their peers, may sometimes be mislead, but will be likely to develop a surprisingly mature point of view at an early time in life.

3) Playfulness vs Discipline

Successful creative people combine discipline and a sense of responsibility with playfulness and independence. Effortless experimenting with ideas is complemented with persistence, stubbornness and persistence.
They often develop ideas playfully, with ease and enjoyment. The implementation of ideas and their accomplishment require a great deal of discipline, which can only be achieved with a passion for the object or the project.

This applies to our work in daycare as follows:

  • Large brain capacity also means: The child need not erase its early childhood strategies from its hard-disk when maturing as if to make room for new strategies. It can integrate them and thus utilize both, the old and new. As a result, gifted people retain a distinct ability to play which is displayed in e.g. trial-an-error learning. „I have enough time and I want to take a look at it from a different perspective now.”
  • Children, especially gifted children, need sophisticated projects leading to success. This is the only way for them to learn that concentration, discipline and persistence will pay off. In undergoing this process they need our assistance. (See also: Advancement through Projects.)

4) Sense of Imagination / Sense of Reality

Successful creative people switch effortlessly between vivid imagination on the one hand and down-to-earth realism on the other.

In order to come up with new ideas, they will dive into a realm of fantasy, separating themselves from reality for the time being. When carrying out these ideas and implementing them, they in turn need a safe and sound connection with reality.

They see reality as relative and alterable. They clearly perceive where change is possible.

This applies to our work in daycare as follows:

  • We should take interest in the conceptions and fantasies of the children, inquire about them and share them with the children, as long as they want to. This can be very interesting, because gifted children often have more on their minds than may seem.
  • We should make up stories and songs with them and keep record of them.
  • Gifted children are able to reflect upon the differences between imagination and realism at a very early stage and leaping back and forth between them with a passion.They usually want to know exactly what the difference between the two is or exactly where this difference lies. This clear distinction does not lessen the fascination for the fantastic, on the contrary: it incites their mind.

5) Introversion / Extroversion

Successful creative people integrate extro- and introversion. They are able to interact, socialize, make contact and tend to it – but they can also withdraw from social contact (to the point of impoliteness or even rudeness). They deal well with being alone for a shorter or longer period of time, as long as it helps to pursue their goals.

While they do need to communicate with others in order to spur new ideas and for feedback they will just the same retreat in order to develop new ideas and work on their implementation.

This applies to our work in daycare as follows:

  • We should accept that retreat or withdrawal and the need to be alone from time to time are completely normal for young children, especially for gifted children.
  • We should draw a fine distinction between a retreat out of frustration (because there is no adequate playing partner or material) and the retreat without frustration (because ideas and impressions need to be assimilated or because a busy mind needs rest).

6) Humility / Pride

Successful creative people exhibit a mix of humility (unboasting modesty towards their domain and the achievements of those who have preceded them) and pride (self-confidence and awareness of their abilities and achievements).

Add to this the conflicting tendencies for ambition and competition on the one hand and altruism and cooperation on the other. Implementing changes often requires hard struggle. Great personal disadvantages are willingly accepted in order to achieve a transition (e.g. in order to push a scientific finding).

This applies to our work in daycare as follows:

  • We understand that gifted children often realize rather early on that they are better at some things, or that they learn how to do things sooner than their peers in age. When expressing this openly within the group, it is not a sign of conceitedness, but a mere reflection of the real situation. It will help them in their social (peer) group, if we tactfully and carefully indicate to them that show-offs are not cool and that others are good at many / other things as well. On the other hand, we should allow their well-deserved credit for especially good achievements.
  • These children know or at least sense at a very early stage that of all the knowledge a person can possibly obtain or ever possess they have acquired only a small portion.
  • Later in life, when they have experienced success in many ways, this makes them humble, in the best sense of the word – while at an early age it makes them insecure and plagues them with self-doubts. All we can do as they undergo this process is support them as their understanding companions. When these children are involved in very exciting projects, they will often display first signs of overwhelming and unselfish commitment for the matter, yet sometimes they will also show impatience with those children who do not commit as strongly or as proficiently. There is a specific stage in the development at which the children have difficulty in losing a competitive game or competition. Reasons for this are illuminated in the article: I Win (German version).

7) Male vs Female Characteristic Strengths

Successful creative people integrate masculine and feminine behaviour. Women are often more dominant and assertive than fellow females. Men are often more sensitive and appear to be less aggressive than other males.
Both sexes avoid sticking to rigid stereotypical gender-bound role allocations. This gives them a broad range of behavioural options.

This applies to our work in daycare as follows:

  • Gifted girls need assertiveness, in order to implement sophisticated projects or obtain a leading position. We shouldn’t inhibit girls in their assertiveness – because of unfeminine behaviour (!) -, but rather help them develop fair strategies of assertion and, if need be, even run their heads through the wall.
  • We should never accept a boy being humiliated or mocked for his sensitivity or his strategies of avoiding aggressive behaviour. Instead, we should support him in standing by his sensitiveness and to positively cathect the idea of non-violence in the group even for boys. At the same time boys, too, should experience how good it feels to enforce important ideas and demands against resistance or opposition with self-confidence.

8 ) Rebellious vs Conservative-traditional

Successful creative people are rebellious and independent. They question traditions they deem obsolete or inadequate – it’s the only way for further development to happen. On the other hand, they are also traditionalists, recognizing established and approved traditions, one can build upon or enhance.
They have the courage to take risks for a new development. When creative people fail it is often for a lack of courage.

This applies to our work in daycare as follows:

  • New ideas of the children must be allowed and supported in their realisation and implementation.
  • Courage and the willingness to take risks, to voice new ideas and try new ways, should find praise and acknowledgement without stressing the aspect of success.
  • The rules within the daycare-centre should be sensible, fair and substantiated. Kindergartens require good traditions, which the children cherish and should be allowed to question.
  • We should be open towards new ideas, discussing and inviting their originators to explain and promote their ideas and we should support and help them in this endeavor.

9) Passion / Objectivity

Successful creative people come up with a lot of passion for their work, and they can still address it with a sound sense of objectivity. Without passion, you tend to lose interest in a difficult task quite soon. Without objectivity, the quality or credibility of your work will suffer.

This applies to our work in daycare as follows:

  • Children need praise as well as constructive criticism. This way they will learn to better assess their abilities. A child’s performance isn’t always ideal. It is highly recommended to support the child’s creative process with suggestions or stimuli, triggering new ideas, that reach further.
  • We should come up with a sense of understanding that gifted children often set their goals high and will tend to react passionately displeased with not having accomplished them, from their point of view. This can lead to e.g. a child tearing apart drawings and paintings repeatedly, because the result wasn’t good enough.
  • These children develop their own criteria and standards of quality and they won’t accept reassurement (“I rather like your drawing.”), which would make us unreliable and poor judges and soon lead to them questioning our supportive positions.
  • What we can do, is very actively take interest in the children’s applied criteria and help them achieve their goal with more focus.

10) Intense Distress vs Intense Joy

With their openness and sensitivity successful creative people are often subject to the experience of intensive distress and, by the same token, of joy.

It is also true that deep interest and involvement in obscure subjects often goes unrewarded, or even brings on ridicule. Divergent thinking is often operceived as deviant by the majority, and so the creative person my feel solated and misunderstood” (p.75) “Yet when a person is working in an area of his or her expertise, worries and cares fall away, replaced by a sense of bliss.” (p.75)

Successful creative people often define themselves through their work, making them even more vulnerable in that respect.

This applies to our work in daycare as follows:

  • It is good when we can help gifted children demonstrate their questions and solutions to the other children in a manner so clear, vivid, self-confident and engaging, that the group can acknowledge and appreciate the effort and findings.
  • The child thus experiences how it can actively improve the process of being understood by others.
  • The emotions must be taken seriously, even if they may seem a bit exaggerated at times.
  • There must be opportunities and an atmosphere which allows for fears, worries, doubts, but also joy, fun and pride.
  • Feeling joy and satisfaction in our work with children is a prerequisite for being able to identify and integrate new ideas into our daily routines.
  • The passion for an occupation should not be regulated too much by strict daily routines. Exciting projects should be allowed to override routines or schedules and, if possible, be realised on a continuous basis, rather than in weekly chunks.

What makes creative people successful ?

According to Csikszentmihalyi it takes: the interest in a special domain, access to this domain and access to the field.
In the following we will attempt to discuss, what these three terms imply for our field of focus at the kindergarten.

The interest in a special domain is what we refer to as a high level of intrinsic motivation to intensely, thoroughly and repeatedly and independently occupy oneself with a matter or object. With younger children these can be matters or objects not typically within the range of attention at kindergarten. A 4-year-old will e.g. develop an interest in numbers or mazes, or a 5-year-old will be interested in a fair-minded society or chemical processes.

Creativity takes place when the interest lies not only in obtaining a general, basic knowledge of an object or a matter (accumulation of knowledge), but when the interest is characterized and accompanied by a „good dose of curiosity, wonder, and interest in what things are like and how they work“ with an unbiased perception and flexible (open-minded) cognitive processing. „Every creative person is more than amply and endowed with these traits.“ (See Csikszentmihalyi, p.53.)

This applies to our work in daycare
in that we take interested and curious children seriously. This requires one’s own openness for their particular topics and a readiness to share and further them with the children.

Access to a domain
is the opportunity to obtain access to the pool of already existing knowledge in that domain – knowledge that has been compiled by others. Also, access to so-called procedural knowledge is necessary. (How is it done – research, surgery, painting?)
Csikszentmihalyi writes: „Being born into an affluent family, or close to good schools, mentors, and coaches obviously is a great advantage. It does no good to be extremely intelligent and curious if I cannot learn what it takes to operate in a given symbolic system“ (p.53).

This applies to our work in daycare as follows:
Even in kindergarten it is important to meet the standard goals of education, which means in respect to gifted (and therefore especially creative) children, that they must receive adequate support, according to their individual requirements and needs, meeting their potential.
From our experience in parent counseling we have learned that this is far from being fully understood in the field of daycare. Gifted children are thwarted or hindered in their quests by their kindergarten teachers in many different ways, often unawarely so.
If they can afford it, parents readily go to great lenghts in order to find a kindergarten where their child can develop freely.

Access to the field
is another prerequisite for creativity to unwind. A highly creative person needs to acquire the attention of the established experts in a field, even gain acceptance amongst them, or at least a patron’s benevolence (which is sufficient in very few fields) in order to even obtain access to adequate working opportunities.
This applies to salaries, a sustenance, access to laboratories and other facilities, including the equipment that comes with them, contacts and information, and last but not least, also the acknowledgement and accreditation of their achievements.
Only those known to and acclaimed by relevant figures of a field, will be acknowledged for their achievements. Consequently, those lacking the ability to communicate with influential people may easily be ignored or even avoided.

This applies to our work in daycare as follows:
Every kindergarten should provide a surrounding (that is to say, a social environment) and be able to recognize and acknowledge a child’s special abilities, providing it with adequate opportunities for operational development.

Unfortunately, such surroundings are rare. If and when they exist, this can range between only one supportive and understanding patron for a gifted child within a team up to, at best, an entire team tending to several gifted and extremely creative children.

This, once more, calls for Integrative Focus Kindergartens !

An integral part of this area is also the consequential equipment of a kindergarten with sophisticated and challenging materials.

This concept of the field results in our responsibility to support these children in improving their communicative abilities and developing a tolerance for frustration. The ability of presenting your results and achievements to others successfully is a key to the field. A high tolerance for frustration helps prevent giving up in difficult situations. Introducing and establishing a new and genuine idea in a field of expertise requires energy and at times assertiveness.

Literature and Films on Especially Creative People

It is quite exciting to reflect the biographies of well-known gifted people in respect of these 10 dimensions of the creative personalty.

The movie “Surviving Picasso” tells the story of one of Picasso’s mistresses, also a mother to two of his children, from her perspective. It shows how difficult it can be to understand and live with a gifted person.

The article Giftedness in Literature and Film (German version) further elaborates on this movie.

The energy Picasso displayed, when he was creative, often resulted in a concern over his health among his relatives. Picassos answer to this: „Don’t worry. When I paint, I leave my body outside the door.“
After every creative phase he would relax in a phase of idleness.

His mood changes, from euphoria to depression, dominated his family’s life and were unpredictable. He would suffer from extreme depression when, having completed a creative cycle, he was searching for new inspiration and it just wouldn’t come.

His self-confidence (sometimes almost arrogance) on the one hand and his doubt over his artistic abilities on the other would drive him on. His urge to create something new and genuine had him under pressure constantly.

His self-doubt kept him from clinging to his older, established achievements, and thus would retain his ability of constant innovation. „Never try selling it (the painting) yourself. Never become your own admirer.”

Many gifted people know the feeling of not being understood. Farin Urlaub, musician of the band “Die Ärzte”, once said in an interview: …not being a part of it all is a recurring, deep emotion I experience. (Interview with Farin Urlaub, Galore magazine, May, 2005)

Being an outsider may have its origin in the peaceful co-existance of two extreme opposing character-traits, which is difficult to assess or comprehend for everybody else.

Creative people see work not as mere sustenance, but primarily as a fulfilment, including joy and suffering. Many people cannot understand how creative people spend energies, when immersed in a project, that exceed the normal measure to the point where they will even ignore their own physical needs. The physicist Marie Curie, for instance, forgot to eat and sleep during her scientific research work. After a number of breakdowns, she was told, she would not be allowed to continue her research unless she managed to look after herself.

Regarded from the outside, extreme working phases may seem to be motivational careerist workaholic behaviour, while the relaxed phases of doing nothing, may appear as an idle neglect of daily duties.

The phrase “You don’t live in order to work, but you work in order to live.” contradicts the attitude and personality of many creative people.

For this reason it is even more important that creative people find a domain for their creative work, in which they can find fulfilment. Not finding this kind of fulfilment can lead to great inner pressure, which will show as either aggression or depression.

Does this also apply for our children at Kindergarten?

During my special qualification training for childcare work with gifted children (IHVO-Project special focus kindergartens) I (Heike Brandt) realized, that kindergarten plays a significant role in the search for a domain for creative work and development. The mother of Georg, the “engineer” in our group, was looking for the right leisure time facility. She asked the municipal services for children where to look, and they told her to have her son tested first. The lady there also recommended that she better tend more to his weaknesses and thus keep him from becoming too arrogant. The mother cancelled the test.

This shows, that the shift in focus which we were encouraged to perform during our training, the shift from tending to weaknesses towards tending to strengths, is still quite unusual.

I have been able to recognize a number of these contradicting characteristics of creative people in some of the children in my group. The playful way of handling ideas, sometimes almost turning into complete silliness, is often displayed by Georg. The implementation of these ideas will nonetheless occur stringently and disciplined. During this phase, he tends to retreat and work on some construction project either by himself or accompanied by an adult.

The fact that our children put a great amount of energy into their projects, which exhausts them, lead Fabian to this remark: “I don’t want to be a number-detective* any more. I always get so tired and sweaty!” After all he still did want to go on.
(*see: Project Number Detectives – in German version.)

Some of the children react extremely frustrated and are devastated by a failure. Fabian, for example, who had made a mistake while drawing his connect-the-numbers picture, wanted to abort all further activities. Only upon consolation and after helping him correct the mistake his frustration switched back to pride and joy.

Farin Urlaub came up with an explanation for the gaping difference between normal and gifted people during his interview. “I seem to be genuinely interested and unbelievably curious, which is extremely exhausting to others. Once you start being curious, you simply cannot stop. It’s like an addiction, because – unfortunately – the book of answers doesn’t exist.”

It is often that lack of understanding which triggers the dictatorial behaviour some creative individuals display, who define their very own rules of coexistence with others.

Einstein and Picasso, for instance, gave their wives clear instructions as to how they expected their wives to behave and act towards them. Farin Urlaub’s following statement goes in that direction: “I’m serious when I say that I like people and enjoy being with them – especially on my terms – which obviously isn’t always possible.”


Date of Publication in German: April 2012
Translation: Arno Zucknick / Sonia Wagner
Copyright by Hanna Vock, see Imprint.

The translation of this article was made possible by
Beate Kroeger-Müller, Bonn.

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