When it comes to kids and creativity, less is more

Too often, society and the educational system overlook creativity in favor of academic achievement. But a creative child can change the world — and creating is so much more than just “making stuff.”

“The root word ‘create’ actually means ‘to grow,'” educator and curriculum developer Allison Wilson told SheKnows. “The act of being creative naturally inspires us to think differently, be more collaborative, develop independence and grow as unique and confident individuals. In a world where innovation is a marker, the skill of thinking creatively is critical.”

Some kids might seem to be more creative than others (you know, the ones who can entertain themselves for hours with only an empty cardboard box), but creativity is a skill you can also help your child develop. As Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist; the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.”

A creativity toolkit is a good starting point for fostering your child’s creativity. Fill a toy box with loose parts, dress-up props and arts and crafts supplies such as play dough.

“I always encourage parents to sit down with their children and play with play dough to help foster a child’s creativity,” Karen M. Ricks, Montessori educator and head chef at Our Kitchen Classroom, told SheKnows. According to Ricks, the process of working and shaping the dough is the perfect way for parents to relax and have fun with their children while also stimulating their innate creativity.

And don’t be in too much of a hurry to introduce tools like cutlery, cookie cutters or rolling pins. Let your child’s hands get their creative juices flowing, Ricks said. “Asking open-ended questions like ‘What did you make?’ instead of ‘Is that a cat?’ allows children to tell their stories and use their imaginations to make their visions a reality with the dough,” she added.

Whether your children are getting creative with dough, paint, feathers, slime or sequins, don’t be afraid to let them get messy, said Wilson. Stressing about a makeshift fort in the middle of your neat living room or scolding a child for splashing water onto your kitchen wall can quickly squash any creative flow. (Don’t worry, you can make clean-up time part of the creative wrap-up to any activity.) 

Wilson recommended reading to flex a little one’s creative muscles and allow for critical thinking, imagination and fantasizing. “Pick up a book and explore an entirely different place or time or person,” she suggested. “Listening to stories and following along in storybooks are wonderful examples of creative expression for early learners.”

The best thing about fostering creativity in your kids is that it costs absolutely nothing. In fact, splashing out on the latest pricey “must-have” toy may hinder rather than help your creative mission.

“A child’s mind needs space for creativity to grow, so we need to provide them with open-ended materials to freely and safely explore,” Mallika Bush, MFT, told SheKnows. “Ideally, this is fostered from infancy. Even the youngest infant has the capability to explore simple materials, starting with their own hands and feet and moving up to the types of toys we provide. Toys with buttons and lights that spin and make noise atrophy the child’s imagination and creativity. A small plastic bowl can be any number of imagined things: a flying saucer, a hat, a dog bowl or a bird’s nest.”

Never underestimate your ability to be a positive influence on your child by showing them what you’re passionate about and how you use creativity in your everyday life. “It’s important to model how curious we are about the world around us,” said Wilson. “Using simple phrases such as, ‘I wonder why that is the way it is’ or ‘How might we find out more?’ are ways in which we can model this for our children. Explicitly share ways you solve problems by asking and researching possible solutions. What gets your creative juices flowing?”

If all else fails, leave your children alone. Seriously. “It’s the ironic twist,” psychoanalyst Dr. Claudia Luiz told SheKnows. “Provide something if — and only if — they need some supplies and ideas. In the emptiness of wide-open spaces and a wide-open time frame, creativity emerges.”

Finally, here’s one way to foster creativity in your kids you might not expect to hear: let them get bored. “Boredom can lead to creativity,” Ais Her, director at Fountainhead Montessori School in California, told SheKnows. “It’s OK for children to be bored — they will figure out something to do on their own. In other words, they are exercising creativity, self-expression and problem-solving. The contrary is also true, as shielding against boredom can negatively affect a child’s ability to self-motivate.”

A version of this article was originally published in May 2012.

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