For his second birthday, my older son, Matt, received an easel-and-paint set as a gift. My husband and I showed him how to use it once -- and he was off. He painted all day, every day, for weeks. Each painting took only a few seconds to complete (like most 2-year-olds, he had a short attention span), but he obviously took great delight in his colorful creations.
Seven years later, when my younger son was the same age, we pulled out the easel and paints for him. Hoping to re-create his brother's experience, I showed him how to use the watercolors and even painted a picture of a cat. Greg stared at the easel for a second, then walked away to play with his action figures.
I've since come to accept that some kids are more naturally inclined to creative pursuits than others. To this day, my older son, now 12, has a more artistic spirit than his younger brother. But just because a child isn't destined to be the next Pablo Picasso doesn't mean that his creative development should be ignored. "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."
Nurturing that creative side early spills over into other areas of a child's 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.
Of course, 2 is also the age when children begin to learn restraint and self-control--important lessons, but ones that can stifle creativity. 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:
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.
"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."
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. In fact, display your child's artwork on the refrigerator or over your desk.