A child's creativity is more than just a form of entertainment -- as cute as it may be. It's also a sign that he can solve problems, entertain himself, and explore the world in his own wonderfully unique way.
Creativity enables children to be flexible and resilient, explains Sally Goldberg, PhD, professor of early childhood education at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and author of Baby and Toddler Learning Fun (Fisher Books). And that's so important because we can't predict what challenges our children will be faced with over a lifetime. We can only provide kids with the tools to work through them, she adds.
Birth to 18 Months
Creativity actually begins with curiosity and a drive to explore -- characteristics that each and every child is born with. Of course, creativity is more difficult to recognize in babies than in toddlers. When a baby struggles to get a sound out of a squeak toy and tries different methods to achieve that goal, she's taken her first steps toward imaginative thinking. Following a spoonful of cereal with her eyes to figure out where it might zoom is just another example.
Needless to say, such expressions are limited by a child's stage of motor and cognitive development, explains Goldberg. In other words, a child can hold and place blocks, he can't build a block palace. But as soon as he can lift a pillow, your toddler is ready to turn your couch into a fort -- or his bed into a mountain range. Happily, there's a lot you can do to foster your child's flights of fancy from the moment she reaches for a rattle. To encourage your baby to engage his natural creativity, experts recommend that you try the following:
1. Don't rush in. If your baby can't get her rattle to work, give her some time to figure it out before you show her. The more success babies have in figuring out how the world worlds on their own, the more likely they are to feel they can tackle the next problem, says Linda Acredolo, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis and coauthor of Baby Minds: Brain-Building Games Your Baby Will Love (Bantam). They'll also gain the confidence to come up with even more creative solutions and will be more game for future challenges.
2. Limit bouncy seat and exercise saucer time. When your baby is confined to toys that limit her ability to explore the world around her, her access to creative play is limited too. Though she may fight it at first because she's used to being on her back, small increments of exploratory tummy time are a boon for discovery.
3. Keep it simple. You don't need to buy every educational toy on the market. According to research, simple toys, such as balls and blocks, can be more educational -- and inspire greater creativity -- than the latest commercial offering teeming with bells and whistles. With a ball, each roll or throw is different from the one before, so even the youngest child can learn new things, explains Goldberg.
18 Months and Up
When your child reaches the 18-month mark, his creative expression will be easier to see because he now has the language skills and cognitive ability to link actions and words. For instance, your toddler might open a book, put it on her head, and say "hat."
However, language development is still pretty limited at this age, so many young toddlers find more creative ways to let you know what they want. For instance, a child might stick out his tongue and pant like a dog to let you know that he's thirsty.
Between 24 and 36 months, children show an increasing ability to express their own style. For example, you'll see that when you put on some cheerful music, your child may create his own silly dance.
As verbal skills and physical dexterity increase during the third year, pictures that may still seem like abstract scribbles to you begin to take on symbolic significance to your child. For instance, he will be able to draw a family portrait and point out each detail: Mommy's hair, Daddy's feet, or the dog's fur, says Acredolo. This is also the time when imagination takes flight in a recognizable way. Dolls start talking, imaginary friends need cupcakes, and monsters appear in closets.
To encourage your child's imaginings, try the following:
1. Go with the flow. Don't worry if your toddler isn't working on some project every moment of the day. Experts say that letting children indulge in old-fashioned, unstructured play is the best thing we can do to foster their creative spirit. Through free time, children are able to exercise their imagination and try out all the different things they are learning about the world. So go ahead -- let your toddler roll himself across your living room floor for half an hour. For young kids, free time is never idle time.
2. Provide raw materials. Give older toddlers and preschoolers lots of tools to make their own kinds of fun. Having raw materials is so important, says Acredolo. Coloring books that have exact lines are too structured. It's better, she says, to provide all kinds of art supplies -- crayons, play dough, construction paper, glitter. Though no dress-up box would be complete without the requisite fireman uniform and princess costume, it's important to include less clearly defined clothing too, such as hats, shirts, jackets, and colored boxes that can be turned into any type of accessory. That way, children have the materials to create their own characters.
3. Limit electronic toys. Cause-and-effect toys that deliver a specific response, such as those that play music when your child pushes the right button, are fine for teaching a child to follow directions, but they don't engage his imagination. And while trucks with electronic noises may be exciting to a toddler, he needs to make up his own siren and motor sounds, too. Sometimes children are simply better off playing with a basic wooden toy, notes Acredolo.