By the time Aelita Andre turned three, she had more art-world accolades than many professional artists. She started painting at nine months old, and galleries were showing her work when she was just two. Now 14 years old, the Australian abstract artist is still going strong; she just closed her most recent solo show in South Korea this month.
Most children are innately creative and curious. But some are obsessively so and as adults end up transforming their field—or the world. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was composing music by four; Pablo Picasso drew on anything he could from toddlerhood. And though she’s not quite a household name, Catherine Beni graduated high school at 11 and had a Ph.D. in applied mathematics by 20.
Child prodigies such as Mozart and Picasso are rare—most children can’t sustain that creative energy over their lifetimes and often suffer from burnout and other maladies. And though a child prodigy might be labeled a “creative genius,” people considered to be geniuses actually emerge as adults, after they’ve had time to gain a deep well of knowledge in the subject that they’re passionate about.
While artists and musicians are often thought of as owning creativity, mathematicians and scientists who make their mark do so through creative invention of new methods and concepts. Therefore, anyone who rises to the level of genius, argues gifted-education researcher and psychologist Dona Matthews, must be a creative person.
Basically, geniuses are adults who are capable of creativity—making new connections from across their knowledge base—at an extremely high level. They stand apart because they’re burning with ideas about how to tinker with their knowledge and make new things to an incomprehensible degree. Often that knowledge starts with a childhood obsession.
Get an inside look at the life of musical genius Aretha Franklin on National Geographic. Genius: Aretha premieres on March 21 at 9 p.m. ET with double-stacked episodes across four consecutive nights, with the premiere episodes available on Hulu the next day.
How does genius develop, if not as an early precocity? There’s no single recipe, but experts agree that a few key ingredients are common: intelligence, creativity, and determination. Even more enlightening: High IQ doesn’t necessarily equate to genius. A study by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman in the early 20th century found that high IQs did not predict creative success later in life. “Smart enough”—120 or so—is good enough, writes Iowa State University psychologist Nancy Andreasen.
So your kid might not be a prodigy. By definition, your child also isn’t a genius—yet. But fostering your child’s creativity and supporting seemingly frivolous obsessions can have important long-term positive impacts on their personalities and passions. And it just might help your child develop their own personal genius.
The biology of creativity
The way some brains are built may have something to do with how genius emerges.
Research has shown that adults who are considered geniuses might have more neurons packed into certain areas of the brain, making their brains more efficient at processing certain kinds of information. Albert Einstein had more glial cells in some regions—these cells are responsible for the care and feeding of neurons—so certain parts of Einstein’s brain were better-fed, in a very real sense. Other studies have found increased cortical thickness and differing densities of gray and white matter in the brains of highly creative people.
Though the science is still evolving, what scientists do know now is that creativity involves the entire brain—not the old chestnut of left- and right-brained abilities. Neuroimaging has shown that creative thinking engages a network of activity across the entire cortex in both hemispheres. Areas in the frontal cortex, hippocampus, basal ganglia, and the connective “white matter” tissues are all critical in creative processes.
Genetics may also play a role. Personality traits that relate to creativity can be inherited from family, says Zach Hambrick, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies the genetics of expertise at Michigan State University. He says these traits include openness to ideas as well as the ability to pull from different areas of knowledge and put those ideas together to solve problems and adapt to different situations.
Though this may be the case, Matthews, author of Beyond Intelligence, cautions against the view that individuals are born with exceptional creative ability, just as people aren’t born with knowledge that is often termed as “smarts.”
“Most people who end up being ‘geniuses’ did not show up as anything exceptional as children,” she says. “It develops over time—people find their area of passion and follow it. Nobody is born a genius.”
Benefits of creativity in children
So if your child isn’t born a genius, how might they grow up to be one? Intelligent and relentlessly motivated, geniuses are extremely curious, open-minded, imaginative, and inventive; they’re also not afraid to take risks and make mistakes, says Claudia Kalb, author of Spark: How Genius Ignites, From Child Prodigies to Late Bloomers. Parents can encourage these traits, which will serve them well over their lifetimes no matter what.
Early childhood is prime time for learning—and play is critical to learning. From birth until six years old, neural connections form at a rapid pace, from 2,500 synapses per neuron at birth to 15,000 per neuron by the time a child is two or three.
Play allows “neural pathways to develop in a much more complex way,” Matthews says. That, she says, helps kids come up with ideas that draw upon their knowledge in a variety of subjects. “Developing those neural pathways makes you smarter.”
Encouraging a child’s natural curiosity through play can help them connect with interests that might develop into a passion. For instance, creative play—with its openness and inventiveness—helps children develop their personalities and tastes, as well as understand the complicated world around them. It also helps develop “divergent thinking,” or the ability to brainstorm many possible solutions to a single problem.
Creative problem-solving also develops confidence, says Stephen Chevalier-Putnam, director of the Meeting House Montessori School in Braintree, Massachusetts.
“If, over time, kids have been allowed to take creative risks and found success, you get kids who are independent and confident,” he says. “Children who are willing to take creative risks are willing to try different things and approach problems differently.”
Fostering creativity in kids
Experts resoundingly echo one piece of advice for how to help children build creativity: Let the kids take the lead. This, Chevalier-Putnam says, helps empower them to figure out why something worked or didn’t, so the next time they’re faced with a similar situation, they can choose an appropriate approach.
Here are some ideas to get started.
Explore. Hambrick argues that finding a child’s obsession may be genetically influenced. That’s why he recommends allowing kids to creatively explore a variety of interests and environments to find areas in which to excel. Though hard work certainly plays a role, children who are allowed to creatively explore are more likely to find their “niche,” where they can better leverage their genetic traits.
Follow. In Spark, Kalb describes how Peter Mark Roget had a passion for words as a child but didn’t write his eponymous thesaurus until he was in his 70s. “Childhood passions can be really meaningful, and people can have really strong interests as kids that shouldn’t be disregarded as a mere hobby,” she says. “If they have a passion that strong, they’ll work hard at it.”
Listen. Nurturing a child’s creativity can require a fine balance between pushing them to develop strengths you find interesting or useful, and what they’re personally interested in. Matthews says her number one rule is to listen carefully to build trust between you and your child. “Be sure not to impose your own interests,” she says. “Pay attention to your child’s curiosity and keep your own mind open to who the child is.”
Play. “You wouldn’t look at Einstein developing theorems and say, ‘he’s playing,’ but there are big connections between creativity and play,” Matthews says. Navigating unpredictability, problem-solving in groups, and attempting challenges happens naturally during play.
Rest. Repeat this mantra: It is 100 percent OK for a kid to be bored, awash in unstructured time without tablets or activities. “If an adult is constantly scheduling stuff for children, or telling them what’s happening next, when does the child have the opportunity to create their independent selves?” asks Chevalier-Putnam.
Matthews says downtime often leads to a child coming up with an activity they enjoy so much that they become completely absorbed in it. “The concept of ‘flow’—that sense of timeless engagement in a task—is a really important dimension of creativity,” she says.
Fail. In Spark, Kalb writes about how, as a child, Spanx founder Sarah Blakely received positive reactions from her father to flops and failures and attributes her resilience to her dad’s message of “if you fail, the worst has happened.”
So resist the impulse to correct them or take over. “Kids will do things that look, most of the time, ugly or imperfect to us,” says Mathieu Penot, who helped create two hands-on creative learning platforms—Dowit and Lelu—for children. “But when parents come in to ‘help,’ the kid just won’t learn how to do it themselves. A bit of frustration is good.”
Understand. Penot adds that it’s important to try to see a child’s creative endeavors through their eyes. So ask: Why did you draw something that way? Why did you cut that piece in that shape? “When you do that,” he says, “you’ll realize how much depth there is in a kid’s thinking that you’d never guess just by looking at what they’ve made.”