While you may want your home to look like something out of Martha Stewart’s Living magazine, seeking decorative perfection’s not in your best interests if you want to raise a creative child, says author Amanda Blake Soule in her book, The Creative Family: How to Encourage Imagination and Nurture Family Connections (Roost Books; $12.89 on Amazon). Soule says that at the heart of every mindful and loving family lie the seeds of endless creativity. She says that when we give children the space and encouragement they need to explore their creativity, they can become the most inspiring of artists, the most inquisitive scentists, the most original thinkers. Short of letting them color on the walls and paint in the carpeted living room, teach your children early how to prepare a workspace with newspaper and how to clean up after themselves. In between, encourage them to be creative without worrying about messes.
No, you don’t have to let them destroy your home with wacky pursuits, but if you want to raise creative children — kids who think “out of the box” and who come up with unique solutions and fresh ideas — they need a free environment. And there are several other things you can bring into your parenting:
Busy, busy and always on the go, families are often hurrying kids out the door bound for soccer fields or dance classes, but wait a minute. All that stress actually kills creativity, Soule says. You may need to examine your decision to keep your children constantly occupied which is the trend of the last decade. The excessive schedules of today’s families create mental exhaustion. For children to be creative, down time is required. Time to read, walk, paint, skip stones, dream. Your child’s most creative ideas will come to him when he’s unwound, untethered and free to use his time the way he wants to.
Let Them Fail
Jonah Lehrer, best-selling author of Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton-Miflin; 2012) says being creative starts with taking risks and risk taking leads to being fearless in trying new things. There will, of course, be failure. In nurturing your child’s adventurous mindset and attitude, you must allow him to fail so he can pick himself up and, as they say, get back in the saddle. Research shows that when children fail, they learn more than when they succeed. When your child fails, you can use that experience as a teaching moment rather than an admonishing one. Lehrer says many successful creative companies focus on their failures so they can learn from each other’s mistakes … which leads to more creative ideas. Failure’s seen as a positive.
This one’s easy … want to foster creativity in your child? Get in on the fun — and don’t stop just because your kids are big. According to Po Bronson, best-selling author of What Should I Do With My Life? (Ballantine; 2005), engaging in pretend play builds imagination and creativity. In early childhood, role-playing is associated with high creativity: voicing someone else’s point of view helps develop the ability to analyze situations from different perspectives. So supply your child time, props, and ideas for pretending. Bronson’s research shows that moving into middle childhood (ages 9 and 10), children who continue to engage in fantasy play are actually displaying a high level of creativity, so keep encouraging it and be careful as children get into fourth grades and higher, Bronson adds. As schools overload kid brains with complex information, creativity can suffer. Bronson says an excellent teacher — one “tolerant of unconventional answers, occasional disruptions or detours of curiosity” — will help older children excel. Without that freedom? A kid’s curiosity can wane and his creativity diminish.
Invent and Create
The term open-ended means that there is no end product expected. Open-ended play allows children to create whatever they can imagine. Don’t insist, for example, that your child must follow the Lego kit directions to the “T”. Sure, it’s good to build the design as the instructions show, but afterward, encourage him to create new things with those little pieces all on his own. Let him construct new, original designs — this leads to divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result). So buy blocks, paints, fabrics, open-ended types of toys for imaginative play, and let your kids figure out how to use them and create. Encourage your kids by asking questions like, “Why?” and, “What if?” and teaching them to ask those same two questions also.
Children can come up with things to do on their own, but parents can also offer suggestions of interesting activities. Think back to what you did as a kid. Did you write in a diary, create elaborate puppet shows, sing and dance for relatives, play restaurant? Exposure to imaginative pursuits early in life is key to helping children get motivated to do creative things as they grow, says Shelley Carson, author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity and Innovation in Your Life (Harvard Health; 2008). Be open-minded and encouraging about the interests your child genuinely displays though, rather than trying to push him in the direction YOU want him to go.
Once you’ve encouraged your child with suggestions and supplies, step back and see which they choose and they go with them. In other words, provide freedom that allows unstructured play time so they can stretch.
Chances are, if you’re a creative person, your children will be, too. Creative individuals come up with more good ideas than others and grow up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and so forth. So while creativity is a prized idea in America, it’s also misunderstood and often squelched in the pursuit of sports and academics. Arts stretch the imagination, so keep that in mind and know that the very essence of creativity is what gives individuals the chance to excel in whatever they pursue.
Susan Day is editor in chief of this publication and the mom of four amazing kids.