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How to encourage creativity in your kids

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Family

How to encourage creativity in your kids

My three-year-old daughter is a rambunctious little thing who, like most tots, takes great pleasure in causing chaos and making messes.

Not your average toy
One of her favourite things to do is whip open the door of our Tupperware cupboard and watch the mismatched collection fly across the kitchen. The first few times she did it, I grumbled (and quietly cursed) at the mess.

It wasn't until I watched her build a plastic palace using spaghetti sauce-stained containers that I realized my kid was learning to be creative.

"Creativity fosters healthy self-esteem and individuality, and creative people are known to be more independent, resourceful and sensitive," says Nikki Goldman-Stroh, the director of Seasons Family Centre, an arts-based centre in Toronto.

Here's how to free the artistic, inventive and clever talents and minds of your brood.

Up to age 4
"The great thing about this age group is that these kids find the most unexpected things entertaining," says Goldman-Stroh. "For a child, a paper-towel roll can be a light sabre and a paper plate can be a mask."

Little ones gravitate toward unstructured toys, "play materials that focus on process and experience, not the end result or goal," says Judy Arnall, a Calgary-based author and parenting expert.

"My kids would mash Play-Doh in the sandbox to make 'breaded patties.' Yes, it ruined the Play-Doh, but they learned a lot about sand, gooey materials and adherence properties," she says.

Unstructured toys
So instead of buying toys that can limit creativity in this age group (such as colouring books, paint-by-number sets and building kits), stock up on unstructured toys, such as blocks, dress-up clothes, glue, cardboard boxes, pots, spoons, pails, tape, puppets and paint, which are all great because "they span the ages and are kid-driven, not battery-driven," says Arnall.

These materials also allow children to "project their own meaning on the play. It helps them express their feelings, fears and whatever is going on in their lives at that moment," she says.
Get messy
Alexandria Durrell, a mom in Pickering, Ont., encourages her kids to do something that makes most parents cringe: make a mess. The messier kids are, the more creative they can be. "Just prepare for it and let the kids have fun. Creativity happens when they feel uninhibited," she says.

For example, Alexandria's daughter, Story, loved finger painting, but instead of paint, she used pudding. "In the summer the kids dip paintbrushes of all sizes in water and 'paint' all over our wood fence," Alexandria adds.

Tech tip: If your kids are playing on a computer, implement a "use policy." Judy Arnall, a parenting expert and author in Calgary, recommends clearly defining time limits and what kids are and aren't allowed to do online.

Ages 5 to 11
Sure, it's easy to let school-agers just veg in front of the tube and pop in a DVD or video game to keep them busy, but there are plenty of ways that this bunch can stay creative as they grow up.

"Parents often pack up the creative materials, such as the dress-up trunk and arts and crafts, because they assume kids have it at school, which is not always the case," says Arnall. "We tend to like the nonmessiness of screens and controllers as opposed to paint on our rugs."

Now is a great time to encourage projects that complement a growing child's interests. If your youngsters like watching you bake, for example, let them decorate whatever comes out of the oven.

Play with your food

"Add a couple of drops of food colouring to store-bought icing, then grab whatever you have in the cupboard -- chocolate chips, shredded coconut, candy, raisins -- and let the kids decorate," says Toronto mom Marisa Arpaia.

Older kids can fill a pastry bag with icing and go to town. Marisa says her girls also love using felt to make things, because it doesn't fray and it's easy for little hands to work with.

"Older kids love stitching it to make scarves and little purses. My kids particularly love making their own bags," she says. "We use old fabric shopping bags and stick different colours and shapes of felt on with craft glue."

As for the kids who just can't wait to get back to their video game du jour, don't fret too much. Arnall says children will process what they experience from TV, movies and games through their creations.

"My kids sewed little Nintendo characters, made wood replicas and wrote storybooks starring Kirby, Mario and Princess Zelda after they played video games," she says.

Tech tip: Get involved. Whether your kids are rocking out to Guitar Hero, running a farm in FarmVille or putting together a digital scrapbook full of snapshots of friends, take an interest, play along and help out.

Ages 12 and up
If you can pry that iPhone out of your tween's hand or get your teen off Facebook for more than 10 minutes, you might be able to persuade them that being creative is still fun -- and isn't punishment. ("Turn off your computer and practise the clarinet" isn't really going to get them excited about music, right?) At this age, kids often take their creativity online.

"I used to lament when my teen daughter quit writing and doing art projects like she did in the school-age years, but she was still creative, just in a different medium," Arnall says. "Much of the way teens use the Internet is for content generation rather than content usage."

She says her son created websites, wrote code and designed comics. "There are interactive computer games (think The Sims), online art galleries where teens can post their artwork and photography, blogs and music composition programs," she adds.

Toronto author and parenting expert Alyson Schafer agrees. "Making a web page, producing and editing a video, and adding graphics and music is creative," she says.

Explore your identity
Since teens find all kinds of ways to express themselves and are constantly exploring their identities and figuring out their place in the world, Schafer says it's important for parents to acknowledge their big kids' creativity -- even if the teens show it in nontraditional ways.

"Parents should drop their biases. Tattoos, mohawk hairdos and piercings are all artistic," she says.

At the Seasons Family Centre, Goldman-Stroh gets older kids to unleash their creativity through classes, like the centre's special-effects makeup class. "The appeal of a class to a teen is that they can sign up and do it with their friends," she says. They can learn or work on a skill that interests them, and be social at the same time.

Tech tip: Make your technology available to your kids. Let them use your tablet, smartphone, laptop, etc., when they are old enough to be gentle and responsible with them. Introducing technology as you would books or other educational tools will inspire kids to use tech toys for more than texting friends and hanging out on social-networking sites.

This story was originally titled "Unleash Your Child's Creativity" in the May 2012 issue.

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How to encourage creativity in your kids

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