How to Nurture Your Child's Creativity and Imagination

Inventive endeavors make kids happier. Here’s how to get your kids inspired to think (and act and write and solve...) outside the box.

young boy dipping paintbrush cup water stool artwork
Photo: Dane Tashima

Deeply intelligent, sweet, and a fierce reader, our second son loved making sculptures with string. So for his 8th birthday, we gave him a dishwasher-size box of yarn. The next morning, we couldn't get out the front door: Dan had tied all the yarn together and run around countless times until he had turned the living room into a colorful cocoon. His ingenuity was frustrating at first, but in time it became clear: This was Dan's joy. This was Dan being Dan. Who was I to mandate his expression?

As it turns out, many of us—and certainly children—might be happier if we spent our time in the throes of creative activity. Researchers at UNC Greensboro found that young adults who reported feeling happy and active were more likely to be doing something creative at the time. And many pediatricians say their observations bear this out.

"When kids are given freedom to explore in this way, there can be significant brain growth and personal development," says Parents advisor Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine.

overhead view kids watercolor paint drawing paper
Dane Tashima

You might be thinking, Well, what if drawing, writing, or playing music holds zero appeal for my kids, and what if they're not even interested in yarn cocoons? That's okay.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, points out, creativity is not simply about participating in the fine arts. It's about approaching the world with a spirit of adventure. Even tasting a new food or noticing an unusual bird, window shape, or flower can be a creative event.

So how do you foster that kind of noticing, that spirit of adventure, in your child? Well, most of the time, you can just do nothing. Read on to learn why creative endeavors are important for kids and how to incorporate imaginative play into their daily habits.

How Free Time Fosters Creativity

Unstructured play teaches children their best life skills, says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids. "When we swoop in on whatever it is our kids are doing—to help them, enrich them, teach them—we are taking what was their project and making it ours. That is deflating."

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), unstructured play is necessary for children's physical, mental, emotional, and social lives. That's because the kind of activity that often occurs in free play is good for kids' bodies and helps them release pent-up tension and anxiety. Further, imaginative play helps kids analyze risk and make decisions, while interactive play teaches empathy and problem-solving.

It can be challenging for parents not to interfere with unstructured play. Parents may worry that kids are doing it wrong or that tasks are too tricky for kids. And that may be true.

But, Skenazy says, "The goal is not for our kids to make a perfect muffin or scarf or origami swan. The goal is for them to figure some things out, take small risks, maybe even do something a whole new (and messy) way. The result may be a very lumpy whatever. But it is theirs, and they are on the journey of discovery, trial, error, and excitement."

Learning to do nothing with and for kids is one of the best things parents can do to spur creativity. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but the mother of creativity is boredom, says Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor of psychology at Boston College.

"Kids are inherently creative," says Dr. Gray, who explains that as we age, we often lose that spark of curious experimentation when other factors (jobs, obligations, general adult exhaustion) intrude.

One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic was a golden moment of kid creativity. Dr. Gray says his research colleagues found that many children prospered during the pandemic. Bored at first, they quickly fell back on their own resources. So, even if your child spent what felt like an eternity glued to a screen, take heart: Video games can involve a huge amount of creativity, Dr. Gray says, especially those that require strategy and role-playing rather than racing or blowing up a target.

girl red gingham creating painted robot cardboard box
Priscilla Gragg

Kids Succeed When They're Imaginative

When my older kids were young, I was a widowed working mom with little energy to turn the bathtub into an oatmeal sandbox. I was even too tired to do most things along with them. But instinct told me to try withdrawing TV and computers at least five days a week, forcing my crew to use that amazing computer inside their head. They howled in protest. But they got used to it. They thrived.

Raising what eventually turned out to be nine children, I really couldn't devote much time to organized sports and lessons. However, I found ways to facilitate genuine interests, usually when the kids made the request. Mostly, we read together, danced together, and created a thumb-size character called Tiny Eddie, who had adventures every week.

I did worry that my children would not succeed like kids involved in every sport and club, but I never worried about their ability to amuse themselves. In more recent years, my kids have:

  • Knitted every sibling a huge comforter (as a 7th grader!)
  • Designed and made her own prom dress
  • Built an outdoor shower in a weekend
  • Become a computer whiz
  • Cooked gourmet vegetarian meals
  • Mapped out a coffee maker powered by a stationary bike

And Dan, our young master of yarn? He's now a college grad, happily married, and a sous chef at the ritziest restaurant on Cape Cod, who has never once in his life followed a recipe. He always knew his happiness lay outside the usual rules. Maybe your child's does too.

This isn't to say parents shouldn't provide the prompts. Sure, ask all kinds of questions about the things you see together. Put ingenuity-inducing materials into their hands. But once your kids have the stuff or the ideas, stand back. And as you embark upon this family journey toward a more creative life, remember: Your children already possess that spirit of adventure. Your job is to encourage them to keep it.

trays paper paint droppers tape artwork paper clips
Dane Tashima

How to Spark Your Child's Imagination

You know how on Top Chef, the host gives each contestant a box of super-random, weird ingredients they must then find a clever way to use in a sometimes delicious yet consistently inventive concoction? That same format works brilliantly to inspire your kid's creativity in other areas beyond cooking, from writing and visual art to building and improv.

Just set out a collection of assorted household items, run with a theme ("Jungle safari!"), and invite kids to dream up their own stories, skits, and projects. Let the creative games begin!

Write a mystery

Creative exercise by Lexi Rees, author of writing activity books for kids and The Relic Hunters adventure series.

The Goal: Let kids use their powers of perception to solve the case of the curious photos, then write a book based on what they think is going on in the images. They can study details, location clues, or historical-era hints to help them make up a story based on their guesses.

The Supplies: Three photos of people (cut out from a magazine or a newspaper) and three photos of a location (like a busy street or an interesting building)

Guide Them: "What's going on in this picture? What would you write under the photo? Can you guess what was happening before or after it was taken?"

Paint in a new way

Creative exercise by Meri Cherry, founder of Meri Cherry Art Studio and author of Play, Make, Create: A Process-Art Handbook.

The Goal: Your kids are taught to color inside the lines, but what would happen if you threw that (and their paintbrushes) out the "figurative" window? Unteach them by handing over unexpected tools to paint with—fingers encouraged too.

The Supplies: Various paints such as oil pastels, watercolors, and acrylics; paper leaves, flowers, or twigs; feathers; sponges; plastic utensils; plastic food containers for mixing.

Guide Them: "What's the goofiest shape you can create? Can you mix up a color that matches your mood? Where do you want to display your painting? What will you name it?"

girl crown cardboard brick blocks rug imagination
Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Build a cool house

Creative exercise by Jonathan Adolph, author of Cardboard Box Engineering.

The Goal: Channel Bob the Builder and have kids construct anything from a pet playhouse to a cute castle for toys—just by reusing old cardboard boxes and recycling scraps. Let them go wild customizing it any way they please—trapdoors, swings, whatever!

The Supplies: Cardboard boxes, paper towel and toilet paper tubes, wooden craft sticks, egg cartons, paper cups, glue, tape

Guide Them: "How can you make the house sturdy so it won't fall down? What kinds of visitors will your house have, and how can you design it to work for them? How would they move from one level to the next?"

boy paper towel telescope mustache pirate pretend living room
Sabrina Helas

Make-believe under the sea

Creative exercise by Carol Murphy, founder of Acting Bugs, a drama enrichment program for kids.

The Goal: It's showtime! Have your kid act out their own ocean adventure, improvising what they'll discover and the characters they'll encounter. Warning, parents: Chances are high you'll get roped into playing best-supporting sea creature.

The Supplies: Blanket; shoebox; costume jewelry and coins; beach towels; shovel and pail; blue, purple, and green streamers; oven mitts

Guide Them: "Who or what might you see on a trip to the ocean? What might happen if a whale swallowed you? How would different sea creatures sound and move? What would different noises sound like underwater?"

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