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Inspiring Creativity: 20 Ways to Get Started

child crafting

Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Yes, I know. I knoooooow.

In order for my kids to get their creative juices flowing they need only gentle guidance from me. As Dr. Mogel says, kids are natural risk takers, problem solvers, and uninhibited visionaries. But it's our responsibility and privilege as parents to encourage their imagination and self-expression and, as the glue-gun gurus suggest, make your home a petri dish for creativity.

That sounds great and all, but my interpretive dance card is already pretty full with cooking, laundering, policing homework, running baths, drying tears, breaking up arguments, driving children around the planet, and cleaning my house every 23 seconds to make sure it's not a petri dish for the next wave of H1N1 instead.

If my daughters, ages 8, 6, and 2, decide they want to paint sunsets at 7 P.M., I try my best to happily cover the kitchen table with newspaper and pull out the watercolors and paint-brushes without moaning in my head, "Cleaning up this mess is just another thing that I'm going to have to do in ten minutes when they get bored." Which, incidentally, is exactly what happens.

Making time for my kids to have creative fun seems like a lot of work. "But it doesn't have to be," says Elizabeth Rieke, CEO and executive director of the Center for Childhood Creativity, a nonprofit in Sausalito, California, that coaches parents and teachers on how to help kids get their creativity on. "So often, parents do everything for their kids, even think for them. The key is to let them be the idea generators." I asked Rieke for help. She showed me how to put myself and my kids in a creative frame of mind, with less mess and stress, at every stage of the day.

Waking Up

The "Stretchy Game": As you turn on the lights and open the blinds, call out body parts to stretch -- the funnier, the better. (Belly button! Earlobe! Bum!) "A kid's body and mind develop at the same time, so anything he does to warm himself up physically also warms him up cognitively," Rieke says. Plus, this challenges kids to tune in to their body and come up with unexpected ways to move it. When I shouted out, "Stretch your pinkie toenail," my 6-year-old ran to the laundry room to get a clothespin, clipped it to the tip of her toe, and pulled.

Arm the Alarm: Decide together on a good wake-up time, and show her how to set the alarm. Kids as young as 4 can manage this, especially if it's preset and all she has to do is switch it from "off" to "on." Make it her job to be in charge of it every night. She gets to choose which radio station it's set to or which song on the iPod will wake her up.

Fantasyland: Flick the light switch as you announce that the bedroom has magically transformed into someplace other than a bedroom. An aquarium. A bowl of Jell-O. A gerbil cage. A cloud. Then ask your child to imagine waking up there: "How do you think someone would wake up in a rowboat in the middle of a lake?"

Getting Dressed

Their Body, Their Choice: This one starts with a parental ground rule: "Let go of what you think they're supposed to wear," Rieke says. "You have to relinquish some control if you want to raise creative children." First-graders and older kids can really be given free rein to choose whatever they want. With my 2-year old, I started to pick out two shirts instead of just one and I let her choose. (Her favorite part was tossing "loser shirt" on the floor while yelling, "Nooooooo!")

Suggest a Theme: Today is...Backwards Day! Pinkalicious Day! Cheer-Up Day! Send kids to their closet to interpret the theme any way they want to. Now, instead of doing a job -- "getting dressed" -- they're creating something. Whatever you do, don't become the fashion police. Nothing crushes a budding Stella McCartney more quickly than a parent saying, "Are you sure you want to wear that?"

Turn the Tables: Let your child dress you (which means now letting go of what you think you're supposed to wear). That doesn't mean you squeeze into a bikini for school drop-off just because your son pulled it from your bottom drawer. In that case, say, "It might be too cold out for that. What could I wear that might keep me warm?" That way, he comes up with the solution.

Mom and child crafting

Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Brushing Teeth

Time It: Buy a funny-looking egg timer (ours is a gray mouse) or snag the hourglass timer from your Boggle game and then teach your child how to use it. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends setting it for two minutes of brushing twice a day.) Now she's in charge of the job and feels the freedom to do something on her own -- actually one of the first steps to being creative.

Think Expansively: Ask, "How do you think a monkey would brush his teeth?" Or, "How would you brush your teeth on the moon?"

Tooth Opera: With siblings (or during sleepovers, or with you), have one brush while the other makes up a song about teeth (or bristles, or bad breath, or the Tooth Fairy). Then switch. Kids might even brush longer than usual just to challenge the songwriter to keep making up lyrics. In our house, we repurposed songs we already knew and, for some reason, my kids opted for a lot of Katy Perry: "Do you ever feel like your teeth are gross, your breath is smelling bad, no one is coming close? 'Cause, baby, you must bruuuush your teeeeth! You really need to get them cleeeeean..."

Getting Out the Door

Mama's Little Problem Solver: When you're late getting out the door in the morning -- again -- don't flip out. Later, at dinner, calmly mention, "We're having trouble being ready for school on time. What do you think we need to do?" We try this tactic with everything -- when the kids are bickering over something, when they don't like what I made for dinner, when they can't get to the potty in time in the morning, which led to my daughter coloring an elaborate picture of a toilet that she hung on the wall beside her bed, to see as soon she wakes up, with the words "GO NOW!" written in red bubble letters.

Mission Impossible: Make it a physical challenge: How do you get out of the house without someone seeing you? Without walking on the carpet? Without using your hands? When we tried "walking backwards," there were some casualties (okay, I ran into the piano bench), but we actually left the house laughing, as in "not yelling."

In the Car

"I Notice, I Wonder": First you make an observation: "I notice that the rain is really loud. I wonder why." Or "I notice that your shoes have shoelaces. I wonder why." Then shut your mouth. "Give children a chance to roll the idea around in their brain," Rieke says. "And no matter what explanations they come up with, never correct them if they're 'wrong.' Just say, 'That's an interesting idea.'" I walk my kids to school, and we've started to do a variation of this just about every single day: "I notice that the honeysuckle smells really good. I wonder why." (This one led to my 8-year-old riffing about bee feet.)

Rhyme Time: Give two clues: "I'm thinking of a word that's the color of snow, and a toy that flies on the end of a string." (White, kite.) Or, "I'm thinking of the color that blue and yellow make, and what we do when we make a mess." (Green, clean.) Maybe they come up with the rhyme or not but, either way, their brain needs to make connections between different ideas -- a hallmark of creativity.

Group Story: Whether there's one kid in the minivan or five, start a story ("Once upon a time, there were five ninjas on their way to the beach") and then say, "Next!" One of the kids adds a sentence to the story, says "Next," and so on. One rule: no editing!

Cleaning Up

Change the Rules: No one likes to "clean up this mess." But breaking "the job into unexpected categories challenges kids to think outside the toy box. First, ask them to pick up all the red toys. Then, the blue ones. The smushy toys. The ones smaller than their hands.

Delegate: Kids love to be in charge of things ("It teaches them self-direction, which is how creative ideas turn into action," Rieke explains), so let them choose a cleanup job, which you offer with fancy-sounding titles: "Who wants to be The Counter Wiper? The Towel-Hanger-Upper? The Stuffed-Animal Putter-Awayer?"

Pretend: Any time we can add a level of fantasy play, we fire up their imagination. So, we're not just a family cleaning up before bedtime: We're running a restaurant, or having a fancy party, or preparing for an alien invasion. We had the greatest success when I announced we needed to clean up because someone important was coming over -- "Justin Bieber." It worked the next night too. And the next night. I started calling it "the power of the Biebs."

Going to Bed

Break it Down: Kids don't think of the nighttime routine the way parents do -- a series of tasks leading to the promised land of "bedtime!" "They don't think about goals, and that's a good thing," Rieke says. "Creativity doesn't happen at the end, it happens along the way to the end." We don't want kids to get into the habit of always focusing on the goal, the finished product, and we can do that by not focusing on it ourselves. One way is to make each step toward bedtime (or walking out the door, or getting into the car) its own special event: "It's pajama time!" "It's floss time!" "It's storytime!" The first night we tried this, my husband got a little carried away and yelled, "It's tickle time!" That pretty much defeated the whole "calming" part of the bedtime routine, but it was fun. Once.

The Two-Minute Story: Instead of always reading a book, make up a story with your child as the main character: Mark the Shark. The Shannon-ator. Pause every now and then to let your child fill in the blanks: "Luke McSleepy lived in a..." or "The Amazing Alexa got her superpowers by eating..." (Psst: Giving the story a time limit lets the kids know they can't stall by begging for more.)

Wish Upon a Star: "Right before bed, my kids and I send a wish into the world," Rieke says. You might need to prompt them to ask for something other than "school being closed." But they'll quickly catch on to the idea: "I wish...dinosaurs would come back to life, my bed was made of cotton balls, I had eyes on my toes." This way, they end their day with one of the most creative things they can ever do -- coming up with a fantastical idea that's all their own.

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Parents magazine.