You know the importance of play and creativity, but how can you encourage it at home? Learn 4 easy ideas to nurture your child’s imagination.
I had found the perfect craft on Pinterest—something I could actually try with my then-toddler.
The object was simple: draw a cloud outline on a piece of paper, and have your child glue cotton balls within the shape. Once he’s done, you’d then cut along the line and you’d yourself a bona fide cloud—voilá!
I gathered our supplies and showed him how to apply glue to cotton balls and stick it to the paper. Except… he had his own agenda.
First, he wanted to play with the cotton balls. To his defense, it wasn’t every day he was able to hold and inspect a cotton ball.
Then, he became intrigued with the glue. He must’ve wondered, What’s this stuff? How does it squeeze out of the bottle? Why is it so sticky?
Even when I finally did convince him to glue the cotton balls onto the cloud, he did so with no pattern. A cotton ball here, a cotton ball there, and definitely out of the lines.
I felt defeated. We were supposed to make a cloud, one we could hang on the wall and proudly claim as our craft for the day. Instead, he had no intention of following directions and wanted to explore his own way.
How to nurture your child’s creativity
After a few years and two kids later, I learned that we don’t have to do much to nurture play and creativity. It’s certainly not about us telling kids where exactly to glue cotton balls on a cloud I drew.
In fact, we run the risk of making the activity more about what we want instead of allowing them to be creative. Instead, our job is to nurture the creativity that’s already there.
1. Don’t micromanage
No one—from kids to adults—likes to be micromanaged. It defeats the point of entrusting someone to do what they do best. In this case with kids and their creativity, micromanaging sends a clear message: you don’t know what you’re doing.
Don’t take over your child’s craft or play time. Once in a while, I’ll hear one of my kids correct another one about how they’re playing. “Batman doesn’t fly…” he’ll say. When I hear things like this, I’ll quickly interject and say, “He can play and imagine how he wants to.”
Let your child create how she wants. The point isn’t to follow directions (find other activities to do that), but to expand her imagination. Creativity has no right or wrong.
Instead, be a guide. Help her when she needs it, such as unscrewing the glue bottle or holding a piece of paper down while she sticks a cotton ball onto it. But let her determine how to make art without too many interruptions on your part.
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2. Provide the environment and tools
Your child can’t drive to the store and buy himself a box of crayons. And while he can play just about anywhere, he’ll have more fun and opportunity to do so when you carve a space for him in your home.
Nurture play and creativity by providing the environment and tools to make them happen.
For instance, give him open-ended toys that have no obvious characteristics or limits on how to be played. An Elmo doll already comes with an established “personality,” and an electronic toy has limited “cause and effect” lessons to learn.
But open-ended toys offer endless ways to play. There’s no one right way to play with art supplies, a set of dress-up clothes, or building toys and blocks. It’s up to him to use his imagination to play with them. The fewer instructions a toy needs from an adult, the better.
Similarly, include special nooks around your home to nurture play and creativity. Buy a set of child-sized table and chairs he can sit on to draw, or an easel and chalkboard to paint and write. Designate a corner of his room with dress-up clothes, or prop a tent for him to play house.
3. Let your child be bored
Let’s be clear: no one likes to be bored. This may explain our desire to provide our kids with something the minute they say they’re bored.
Thing is, boredom has many benefits, especially when it comes to your child’s play and creativity. She’ll find creative ways to stop feeling bored and develop problem-solving skills. She’ll learn to tap within herself to find joy instead of relying on external sources to feel entertained.
Boredom means she’s more likely to tinker with her toys, find a new way to play with them, or immerse herself in a project she otherwise wouldn’t have.
As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:
“Boredom itself isn’t a good feeling, but it’s an inevitable part of life we all face. The more your kids can learn to tolerate and cope with boredom, the more creative they’ll be with their time. They’ll learn to use boredom as an opportunity to entertain themselves or learn patience.”
4. Focus on the process, not the finished product
A misleading part of nurturing creativity is celebrating only the finished product instead of the journey. Do this too often, and kids will only want to check off the box rather than do a job well-done. In fact, avoid these common mistakes when it comes to play and creativity:
- Don’t make it a race. The goal isn’t only to finish the project, much less finish quickly. Allow your child plenty of time and avoid celebrating getting it done fast.
- Don’t expect perfection. In an “all A’s on a report card” culture, we tend to value perfection instead of the strategies and learning that takes place beforehand.
- Don’t make your praise the reward. Does she do things solely to get your applause? Avoid making praise the only reason for her to be creative.
So, what can you do instead? Describe what she’s doing along the way. Make the process as important as the finished product. Celebrate new strategies she tried, or lessons she learned from mistakes. “That’s cool you thought to mix red and yellow! Looks like you made a new color by doing that.”
And describe what you see, rather than saying whether you like it or not. This avoids seeking your praise as her only goal. Say “Looks like you’re gluing the eyes on!” instead of “I like your picture!”
As we learned, play and creativity isn’t something you need to “teach” your child. She already comes equipped with the desire to use her imagination—all you need to do is to nurture it.
You can do this by allowing her to lead and by providing the environment and tools to help her do so. Don’t feel compelled to save her from boredom and instead allow her to find creative ways to pull herself out of it.
And focus on the process, not the finished result. Allow her to appreciate play and creativity for the journey that it is, rather than the final product or applause she might expect.
With creativity already well-rooted in every child, you only need to nurture it to grow—even if that means she glues cotton balls outside the lines.
Get more tips:
- The Secret to Raising Hard Working Kids Is Easier than You Think
- Easy Arts and Crafts for 1 Year Olds (No Complicated Instructions!)
- How to Encourage Open Ended Play (And Why It’s Important)
- Why Boredom is Good for Your Child
- Why Too Many Toys Can Be Bad for Kids
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