How to Nurture Your Child's Imagination

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

An Opportunity for Creativity

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."

The Spillover Effect

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.

Guidelines for Nurturing Creativity

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:

  • 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 nontoxic 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. In fact, 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.
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