How to encourage your child's creativity

From infancy to school-age, we share how you can help your child develop their creativity.

By Lisa van de Geyn

How to encourage your child's creativity
Photography by Michael Alberstat
A few months ago, my five- and three-year-old daughters each made a pair of slippers using empty 
tissue boxes. They glued pieces of pink construction paper to the sides, covered them with Disney princess stickers, drew a few balloons with markers, and sprinkled each shoe with turquoise glitter. After taping ribbons onto the toes, they put the slippers on and traipsed around the house, stomping and giggling.

It didn't occur to me then—I was too preoccupied with all the sparkles on my hardwood floors—but this small act of creation was impressive. Not only did the girls find a use for things destined for the recycling bin, they came up with a clear concept, a striking colour palette and an original story to go along with it all. They gave their creative muscles quite the workout in the hour they spent.

While the potential for creativity is inside all of us (expectant women are thought to be especially creative, due to a surge in hormones), it should be nurtured from birth. Artistic folks are typically more flexible in their thinking, as well as more motivated, adventurous and independent. "Fostering creativity expands the neurological pathways in the brain," says Carla Garrett, a kindergarten teacher in Penticton, BC. "Developing these creative pathways at an early age is critical because they'll be used in successful learning and life experiences."

If you're looking to get your tots in touch with their imaginative sides, read on for tips from parents who've mastered the art of boosting creativity.

Babies 0 to 12 months
It might surprise you to learn that creativity begins before the loss of the umbilical stump. "With infants, the most important thing to focus on is nurturing interest in their surroundings. This includes letting them see, hear, taste, smell and touch [things]," says Melanie Olorenshaw, executive director of Brilliant Beginnings in Calgary. At this stage, she adds, their favourite "toy" will be mom or dad, so "the more you interact throughout the day, the better." Spend lots of time engaging in face-to-face play and mimicking their expressions and sounds, and make your own silly faces for them to mimic.

Don't forget that babies need time to explore by rolling around or crawling. It's extremely important that infants not be limited in their movements—chairs, Exersaucers, playpens and other restrictive devices should be used in moderation. "The more she's able to move around, the more her environment will foster her curiosity," says Olorenshaw.

Toddlers 1 to 3 years
Discovery and unstructured play is essential at this stage, so be prepared for a few messy years. "Give a toddler a paper towel roll and see how many things it can become in just five minutes," says Nikki Goldman-Stroh, director of Seasons Family Centre in Toronto. "Get out some basic art supplies, talk about what you're creating and see where his imagination takes him." The same goes for things found around the house—little minds will come up with unique uses for pots and pans, plastic containers and wooden utensils.

While crafts, music and make-believe are great ways to encourage creativity, it's also important to involve your toddler in practical activities. "When we do things for our kids that they could do for themselves, we are removing their ability to problem solve creatively," says Julie Freedman Smith, a parenting expert with Parenting Power in Calgary. "Questions like, ‘Where are your boots? How will they get to the front door?' will get them involved in solving the problems of everyday life."

Preschoolers 3 to 5 years

Toronto mom Lindsay Pruss has a craft room in her house, but it's not the only place she and her three-year-old daughter, Peyton, get creative. "As a kid, my mom and grandma used to bake with my sister and me. Sometimes we helped with ‘real' baking, and sometimes they'd let us concoct our own recipes. I've carried that tradition on with Peyton," says Pruss. "When she wants to play baker, she'll put on her apron and I'll provide just enough chocolate chips, coconut, flour and sugar for her to create something we can bake. It goes in the oven and we do a taste-test after."

There are plenty of other ways to spark imagination—things like dress-up clothes, empty appliance boxes and building materials are always good. "Often what is labelled ‘junk' by adults makes a great prop for kids," says Olorenshaw.

Spending time with peers (via preschool or playdates) can inspire kids to try new things, but Goldman-Stroh warns against over-scheduling. "A tired kid isn't going to be at their full exploratory [best]," she says.

School-agers 6+
By this age, you've no doubt done enough to spark your child's imagination, so time to step back and let them do their own thing.

That's what Brianne Kalechstein, a mom of two in Vaughan, ON, does with her boys. Lucas, 8, and Aidan, 6, are both into acting and putting on shows, so when her eldest had the idea to make a movie using iMovie on the iPad, she wasn't surprised. They raided their dress-up and Halloween costumes for capes and wands they could use. "The whole family is in the movie, and we shoot a scene or two at a time," says Kalechstein. "The boys write and direct, and my husband and I do what we're told." 

By this age, kids should be able to make their own choices when appropriate, because decision making is a form of creativity. "Involve your child in packing a healthy lunch, for example," suggests Garrett. "Tell him it must include one fruit and one vegetable, and give him options to choose from. Then have him evaluate if his lunch is healthy."

Above all else, says Goldman-Stroh, don't let your own interest or disinterest in music, art, games or sports get in the way of your child's enthusiasm. "It's very important to give kids space to explore independently."

Check out our tips on what it takes to have a successful playdate.                                

This story was originally titled "Cultivating Creativity" in the April 2014 issue.
           
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