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Grounded Creativity: The technological medium in creativity

Project Team

Previous Participants

  • Dr. Yong Cao Assistant Professor; Dept. of Computer Science
  • Luke Gusukuma Masters student
  • Josh Tanenbaum PhD candidate (Simon Fraser University)
  • Ashley Robinson PhD candidate
  • Rongrong Wang PhD candidate
  • Anurodh Joshi Masters student

Project Overview

Creativity Research In Children

This project proposes research to support or nurture creativity in children through the use of technology. Within the domain of creative storytelling, we explore the role of the technological medium in children's creative process. A significant number of systems to support creativity have been proposed in prior literature in the form of creativity support systems (CSSs). However, most research is system-oriented and there is little understanding as to how these systems affect the creative process. We seek to understand the process by which (material) medium mediation takes place in creative activity among children, with the goal of contributing to the design of CSSs, as well as to their evaluation.

To address our question, we investigate in particular the phenomenon known as the 4th grade slump (thereafter referred to as the slump). The slump provides us with a fitting opportunity to study the creative process, as well as the effects of any interventions to it within a real context. First proposed by Torrance (1967/68), the Fourth Grade Slump is characterized by a precipitous and acute drop in creativity among children aged around nine years old. In line with the symbolic interactionist view in the social sciences, we posit that the student’s judgment of the inadequacy of their creative output as sufficient cultural contribution leads to declines in their self-efficacy that then causes them to lose motivation to create. This can potentially result in a general decrease, and engagement, in creative activity.

Our research for this project is composed of several components (see Figure on right), focusing on the 8-10 year old child as target audience, that inform about children's creative process, creative activity in practice in schools, and the designs of CSSs.

A. Creative Process in Children


Our first goal is to understand processes that children go through when creating stories with different types of media. We are particularly interested in the use of the animated medium. The rationale for this is three-fold. First, in terms of content, animation offers a certain degree of familiarity for children, who have watched many more hours of cartoons than adults, and so it provides them with 'something to say'. Second, in terms of process, we posit that through exposure, children also become familiar with the 'formal features' of the medium such as movement, sound effects, etc., and this then leads to an increased degree of comfort and motivation to use the medium. Third, in terms of product, children are evidently engaged when watching animations, and are attracted to the medium.


A qualitative user study was conducted with children of third- and fourth-grades in the afterschool program of a local elementary school to investigate the use of animation for authoring stories. Processes and interaction of children were compared when they create with an animation software to when they create with conventional powerpoint slides, drafted as storybook pages. Specifically, the research questions of the study were as follows:

  • How does storytelling with animation qualitatively change children's creative processes?
  • How do children perceive storytelling with animation?
  • Do children produce more creative stories with animation?


Findings of the study were of two types: Structural, detailing the stages of creation; and Production, detailing the strategies of creation.

Structural Interaction: Stages of Creation

The creative process in the storybook and the animation sessions differed substantially. The two figures below illustrate the substantial difference in stages of creation of the children:

Stages of creative process for Animations‎ Stages of creative process for Storybooks

Production of Interaction: Strategies of Creation

Five themes, related to the recurrent patterns of behavior and speech of the children during the animation sessions, were uncovered in data analysis:

  • The use of Micro-activities
  • Activity-driven integrated story generation
  • A focus on Qualitative details
  • Provoking Broader Imagination
  • Catalyzing Serendipitous creativity

General observations

  • Computer tools relying on writing (and drawing) do not allow children to create qualitatively rich stories and to develop their creativity
  • Using multimedia tools allow them greater flexibility to create, but those still represent technical barriers for children. Tools that prioritize ease-of-use for children tend to be limiting in allowing creatively rich expression.

Related Publications

Chu, S., Quek, F. and Lin, X. Studying Medium Effects on Children's Creative Processes. ACM Creativity & Cognition 2011 (33/144, 23%). Atlanta: GA.

B. Creative Activity in Practice


Evidence for the Fourth Grade Slump has been mainly put forward by Torrance (1967/68) from his longitudinal study of children's creativity test scores across several countries worldwide. Vygotsky also concluded from his theoretical propositions that creative development may follow a U-shape path, with many children stopping to create during that period (Moran & John-Steiner, 2003, pp. 15). Gardner (1994) and Winner (1982) also made reference to the elementary school child decreasing creative activity owing to pressure from cultural standards. Following Vygotsky's theory that it is at the start of adolescence that the child learns to be reflective and critical about the products of her imagination (Moran & John-Steiner, 2003). we believe that this self-awareness of being socially situated is one of the major culprits that lead to the decline in creative thinking in the child.

Although the slump has been acknowledged by many, there is almost no literature detailing specifically how it is concretely manifested. The aim of this component of the research is to achieve an understanding of the scenarios, situations, and contexts into which the slump occurs for the third to fourth-grade child.


Three main areas were addressed in our study, which consisted of a series of semi-structured interviews with third- and fourth-grade teachers from various elementary schools in the region:

  • Creative activities that are currently practiced in classrooms
  • Manifestation of the Fourth Grade Slump
  • Perceived causes of the slump
  • Strategies for creative motivation used by teachers

C. Designs of Creativity Support Systems


Creativity Support Systems have been built for a wide range of domains, from concept-formation to management and product design. This component seeks to investigate how technological systems succeed in supporting creativity in the child. Few papers specifying designs for creativity support systems detail the affordances or specific characteristics of the systems that act on the child's creativity.


To make sense of existing Creativity Support Systems within our focus domain of technology-enabled storytelling, we conducted an in-depth literature review of papers describing CSS that target creative storytelling support and children from a number of prominent conferences, including CHI, Creativity & Cognition, and Interaction Design & Children (IDC), during the last ten years.

D. Object Affordances for Enactment-based Creative Storytelling


This component mainly arises from our observations of our study on the creative process of children in story authoring with different media, and from what we gathered from our teachers' interviews. It has spawned off an entire project titled Motion Painting.

Our primary aim is to investigate how children can express their creativity in storytelling with minimal technical barriers. During interviews with elementary school teachers on creative activities that children engage in, we found that storytelling play a significant role. Storytelling is used extensively to help students think, understand concepts, create mental images, and to make learning more fun. Currently, drawing and writing are used as primary means for children to create stories. With the rise of the animated medium, our goal is to enable children to tell creative stories using this medium of choice as transparently as possible.

Many current animation authoring systems enable children to create animated stories using traditional input devices such as the mouse and keyboard. In our previous study investigating the use of different types of media for story creation by third and fourth-grade children, we found that conventional animation authoring systems (e.g. Frames) do not afford children to indicate qualitative details or styles of movement (e.g. the dog coming to save the crayons will just be a dog ‘gliding’ from left to right). On one hand, authoring systems that allow the child to select from a library of animation styles for different actions limit the expressive power of the child and hinder her creativity. On the other hand, systems that provide blank starting slates tend to induce the ‘writer’s block’ problem for the child. Software which can allow one to create such textured animations (especially 3D) as the child imagines employ techniques that require much technical knowledge and are typically not amenable for children to use (e.g. Maya).

We posit that adopting an enactment-based approach to storytelling will enable the child to tell stories that are rich and creative with less difficulty. As of now, we are considering both the use of enactment through body movements and through the use of physical objects. Studies such as that of Hoysniemi et al. (2004) somewhat inform us on children's patterns and behaviors in gesture-based interaction. There is reason to believe that however manipulating physical objects help to trigger the child's imagination further, as it seems to happen in pretend play. We have little indication as to how objects should be designed to adequately serve the purpose of authoring stories creatively.


We approach the question of object design for story authoring by focusing on the iconicity of objects. The proposed study thus compares behaviors and patterns of use of the child with objects of three types of iconicity: cultural, generic and arbitrary, in terms of their enactment in storytelling. The study will also allow us to investigate the broader questions of whether and how an embodied approach (enactment-based) catalyzes creativity in children.


  • Torrance, E. P. (1967). Understanding the Fourth Grade Slump in Creative Thinking. Report for the Office of Education, US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, # BR-5-0508.
  • Torrance, E. P. (1968). A Longitudinal Examination of the Fourth Grade Slump in Creativity. In Gifted Child Quarterly, 12(4), pp. 195-199.
  • Moran, S. and John-Steiner, V. (2003) Creativity in the making: Vygotsky’s contemporary contribution to the dialectic of development and creativity. In Sawyer, R.K., John-Steiner, V., Moran, S., Sternberg, R.J., Feldman, D.H., Nakamura, J. and Csikszentmihalyi, M.(eds.), Creativity and Development. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 61–90.
  • Gardner, H. (1994). The Arts and Human Development. New York: Basic Books.
  • Winner, E. (1982). Invented Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Hoysniemi, J., Hamalainen, P. and Turkki, L. (2004). Wizard of Oz Prototyping of Computer Vision Based Action Games for Children. In Proceedings of Interaction Design and Children, IDC '04, pp. 27-34.


This work is partially supported by NSF grant EAGER: CREATIVE IT: Hyper Drama storytelling: engaging and nurturing creativity in k-12 students, IIS-0954048, and by: CRI: Interfaces for the embodied mind, IIS-0551610.