Here's how to nurture your child's imaginative soul—and to help her creativity flourish.

By Jane Haddam and Emily Elveru
Children Playing Imagination
Credit: Stephanie Rausser

A child who is especially creative excels at more than telling a story or painting a picture. Research shows that creative people who work in the sciences and the arts can better sense what others may think or feel, are able to see issues from different viewpoints, and have above-average self-control (likely because they can devise various solutions to a problem).

The American Academy of Pediatrics now suggests that doctors “prescribe” some amount of solo play each day to spur inventive thinking. "All children can and should learn how to tap into their own creativity," says Torie Seeger, a senior program specialist at the Early Childhood Education and Training Program of the State University of New York at Albany. "Some of them simply need more opportunities and more guidance than others."

Sparking Creativity in Toddlers

Nurturing your child’s creative side early spills over into other areas of his life. "A toddler who's encouraged to think out of the box will know how to look for new and innovative solutions to problems," says Seeger. "In our complex and fast-paced world, flexible and creative thinking has become essential to success at school, at work, and in life."

As it happens, toddlerhood is a great time to focus on creativity because it is by nature the most imaginative period of a child's life. Two-year-olds have only a shaky grasp of what's real and what's imaginary. Thinking out of the box is easy because they haven't yet encountered the restrictions of the box. To them, nothing seems impossible.

A 4-year-old who wants a cookie from a high counter will likely get out a chair to stand on – a method she knows to be effective. A toddler, by contrast, might pile up her stuffed animals to climb on or try to reach the counter by jumping up and down. Because she can't yet understand what works and what doesn't, she has to invent her own solutions.

Guidelines for Nurturing Childhood Imaginations

A parent's goal should be to balance the teaching of necessary social skills with the nurturing of a child's creative impulses. Here, some guidelines:

Encourage active, not passive, pursuits. Think of imagination as a muscle: If it's not exercised, it will atrophy. Children engaged in passive activities – watching TV, for instance – are taking in other people's images and ideas instead of coming up with their own, says Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., an educational psychologist and author of Failure to Connect (Simon & Schuster, 1998). Ordinary activities such as reading aloud or taking a walk outside do much more than television to develop a child's creative side, she says.

As often as possible, engage your 2-year-old in conversation. Ask questions that prompt him to convey his thoughts and ideas. Tell him stories and allow him to supply the ending – or better yet, a variety of endings.

Provide plenty of safe supplies. Toddlers love to explore new ways of using things, so look for non-toxic finger-paint, markers, clays, and play dough that are harmless if eaten. Clothes and hats for dress-up should be easy to get on and off and free of anything that could catch on or choke a child. Musical instruments should have no hard edges or small, detachable parts.

Let your child make choices. Whenever it's convenient (and safe), allow your child to think for himself. Ask, for instance, whether she wants to drink from the green cup or the blue cup, or if he prefers to wear the striped pants or the plaid ones. Though such choices may seem trifling to an adult, a child who is starting to gain control over her life will find them exhilarating.

Tolerate a mess. When your child is engaged in creative play, resign yourself to disorder and avoid such phrases as "That's too messy" or "That doesn't go there."

"I can always tell a student who wasn't allowed to make a mess when she was younger," says Catherine Russell-Patnaude, an art teacher in the Woodbury, Connecticut, public schools. "She's usually very hesitant about doing anything that's not completely orderly."

Participate in creative projects. Studies have found that children whose parents participate in creative play with them develop broader vocabularies and more flexible thinking skills, says Judy Lyden, director of the Garden School, in Evansville, Indiana. So sit down and finger-paint with your child. Or play dress-up with him. "If you're interested, he will be too," Lyden says.

Know what to expect. It's unrealistic to think a toddler can draw a recognizable picture of a house or tell a story with a logical beginning, middle, and end. What you can expect, says Penny Hansen, assistant director of Kangaroo's Korner Early Childhood Learning Center, in Watertown, Connecticut, is "free flights of the imagination, unusual stories with no endings, bold colors in broad strokes, music with more emotion than melody, and lots of enthusiasm."

Don't push your toddler into making things that look or sound like the real counterpart. Praise whatever he creates – even if it looks like a pageful of scribble to you. You can even display your child's artwork on the refrigerator or over your desk.

Don't force it. Never insist that a child engage in artistic projects if he isn't interested. And understand that even if he is, his attention may dwindle quickly. Above all, you want your child to realize that the creative process is a pleasure to be savored, not a chore to be endured.

Make noise. Right, this is the opposite of what you often tell your kids to do, but singing together (whether it’s a song you make up or one you’ve sung 100 times) can help kids feel uninhibited, says Erin Clabough, Ph.D., author of Second Nature. It also boosts memory, word recognition, and familiarity with sequence and rhyme, which all contribute to school readiness. Practice using your voice in other ways: At the zoo, take turns coming up with new noises for animals whose sounds you don’t know, like a buffalo, a giraffe, or a sloth. This is a perfect opportunity for ingenuity because you may not have the answer (but could always Google it together later!).

Inspire big thoughts. Encourage curiosity to get your child’s creative juices flowing. Before an activity, ask your kid questions (“What do you think our slime will feel like if we adds having cream to it?”). This can build anticipation and lets you grasp his expectations, explains Meredith Sinclair, author of Well Played and spokesperson for Moluk, open-ended-play toys. Afterward, reflect on your experience with another open-ended question (“How is the slime different from what you expected?”). These “experience bookends” foster imagination and make an event more meaningful.

Go deeper. Free play is great, but mature play (turning a generic pretend restaurant into a small-town diner with recurring characters and backstories, for example) is even more beneficial because it allows kids to delve into details. Help nudge your child thereby offering an intriguing scenario, says Dr. Clabough. You might pretend you’re both frogs, then make up names and quirky hobbies that give the frogs a purpose (“I’m Macy Gracie, and I bake bug cakes to raise money to buy new school art supplies!”). After five minutes, ask your child to finish baking your bug cake, then step away. This provides a platform for her imagination to take off in any way she chooses.

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