Foster Your Child's Creativity

Laura Markham's picture

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Creativity might be defined as putting things together in novel ways, or seeing the world, or a given problem, with fresh eyes. All of us need access to creativity to solve the problems of daily life, and everyone is creative, although some people are born with talent in certain mediums: an artist's eye, for instance, or perfect pitch, or a writer's way with words.

We can't give kids talent, but we can train the eye, ear and mind, and we can help our children gain access to a creative way of seeing. We can also help them develop the concentration, competence, perseverance, and optimism necessary to succeed in creative pursuits. How?

  1. Neatness is over-rated. Whether it's because they're afraid to get their hands dirty, because they can't leave their art supplies visible and easily accessible, or because they live by too many rules and don't think outside the box, kids who live in households with a focus on neatness are rated by teachers as less creative. As Ms. Frizzle of the Magic Schoolbus says, "Take Chances! Get Messy!"

  2. Children who experience frequent limits train themselves to think inside the box. Babies should learn NO about safety issues, like the stove. But otherwise, you want her to see the world as full of possibilities. Why NOT let your baby empty the bookcase, or the cabinet in the kitchen? Why shouldn't she "paint" the patio with a paintbrush and water?

  3. Focus on play and process. When kids do art to solicit positive comments from adults, sometimes they can't wait to finish another picture. Obviously, it isn't how many pictures they produce, it's how engaged they are in the process. If you affirm how hard they're working on that picture, they don't have to rush through it to the next one for your approval. Keep your comments on process or what you see "This one has a lot of Yellow!" rather than on judgment: "This is good" or "I like this one."

  4. Give your child permission to be different. Inventive, original kids are often seen as a little wacky by other kids. Make it okay for your child to be out of step with the norms of her peer group, to be unique, to see the world through her own glasses. To develop her individuality, she needs your support against the pressures of popular culture.

  5. Let toddlers experiment with manageable messes that they help clean up. Examples: water on the kitchen floor, bubbles on the porch, watercolors or chalk on the sidewalk (just get out the hose), food coloring in an unbreakable bowl with almost anything (snow, whipped cream, cornstarch or water).

  6. Establish a place for art supplies that is both easily accessible and neat. It should include drawers or bins for washable markers, paper, clay, and anything else you feel comfortable adding as your children get older (beads, collage materials, stamps, etc.)

  7. Make creative art play easy. If your child can initiate art activities without your help, he's more likely to create art when the spirit moves him. The best gift we ever received was a small plastic tray for children to put their paper in as they work, but a designated cookie sheet with a rim works just as well. (You'll need one for each kid, and to wash them after messy projects.) Kids can do art with no worry, since crayon marks, glitter, play dough, etc all have a contained space. You still need rules ("Playdough stays on the tray", "Mom has to supervise pouring the glitter" "We always put newspaper down when we paint") but creative arts become more a part of your child's everyday life, as they become "his."

  8. Don't be afraid of boredom. Parents often respond to kids' boredom by providing structured activities or technological entertainment. But unstructured time challenges kids to engage with themselves and the world, to imagine and invent and create. Kids need practice with unstructured time, or they'll never learn to manage it.

  9. Even more important, children need empty time to explore their inner and outer worlds, which is the beginning of creativity. So how to respond when kids complain that they're bored? Help them brainstorm about possible activities, but make it clear that it's their job to figure out how to enjoy their own time.

  10. It helps enormously to prevent kids from depending on TV or computer to entertain them. Studies show that kids who regularly use the TV or computer are more likely to feel bored than other kids, and even after eliminating the habit it can take months for them to find other activities about which they are passionate.

Dr. Laura Markham