How to Nurture Your Child's Creativity and Imagination

Research shows that any inventive endeavor can make kids happier, whether it’s drawing, storytelling, or orchestrating wild scenarios with stuffed animals. 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 eighth birthday, we gave him a dishwasher-size box of yarn. 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 a 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 own 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, but 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. Because 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 or 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.

In fact, learning to do literally nothing with them and for them is one of the best things parents can do to spur on 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 goes on to explain that as we age, we often lose that spark of curious experimentation when other factors (jobs, obligations, general adult exhaustion) intrude.

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. They got used to it. They thrived.

girl red gingham creating painted robot cardboard box
Priscilla Gragg

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. Parents may think, 'But they're doing it wrong!' or 'It's so hard for them!' And that may be true. But 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."

One silver lining of the past year is that we've been living in a golden moment of kid creativity. Dr. Gray says his research colleagues have found that many children actually prospered during the pandemic. Bored at first, they quickly fell back on their own resources. Even if your child spent what felt to you like an eternity glued to a screen, take heart: Video games can actually 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.

Raising what eventually turned out to be nine children, I really couldn't devote much time to organized sports and lessons, although 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 seventh-grade daughter knitted every sibling a huge comforter; another of my girls designed and made her own prom dress. One grown son is an actor who also built his outdoor shower in a weekend. A son still in high school is a computer whiz who cooks gourmet vegetarian meals. My youngest 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 that we 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 that they then must find a clever way to use in a sometimes delicious yet always inventive concoction? Well, 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, and/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 that 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 you were swallowed by a whale? How would different sea creatures sound and move? What would different noises sound like underwater?"

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