Creative Play: The Real Work of ChildhoodEver notice how kids often have more fun playing with an empty box than with what was inside of it? That’s their imagination at work, and as parents, we should not underestimate how vital it is to nurture this creative spirit.

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson explains that creativity is “the process of having original ideas.” Creativity involves “using the imagination to solve problems,” and, he adds, it’s “as important as literacy.”

Molly James, a veteran kindergarten teacher who recently published a paper about creativity, says, “Kids are naturally creative. They exhibit this in their free play and exploration.” But too often, she says, adults don’t recognize the novelty in children’s ideas and trivialize their creative thinking with sentiments such as, “Oh, isn’t that cute!”

She says that parents and teachers need to create supportive environments that allow children to imagine and explore. This isn’t just child’s play, though creativity is playful; it’s about helping kids grow into adults who can find innovative solutions to difficult challenges.

Creativity involves certain skills and habits, says James, including:

  • carefully observing
  • identifying problems
  • seeing possibilities (imagination)
  • taking risks
  • making mistakes
  • rethinking
  • trying a new solution
  • sharing results and getting feedback

Here are a few ways parents can foster their children’s creative spirit:

    1. Provide Building Materials and Freedom to Explore
      Remember that empty box? Make a corner of your home a “maker space” with versatile building materials such as blocks, paints, crayons, scissors, glue, pipe cleaners, sticks, origami paper, string, tape, fabric, and old magazines. Turn paper into blank books for writing original stories. See if kids can find a use for that empty toilet-paper tube.James has a maker space in her classroom, filled with supplies. Her rules are simple: “If you make a mess, clean up. Be kind. Work together. Be brave. Have fun.” And then she gets out of the way!

      “Given the chance, my students would spend all day, every day, in the maker space,” says James. “It often looks and sounds very messy, but it is extremely valuable. They find problems, and think divergently and convergently to solve them.”

    2. Use Words of Encouragement
      Creativity requires stick-to-itiveness—the ability to persevere when the first (or second or third) idea doesn’t work. The language we use with our kids can encourage them to look for creative solutions when they face obstacles.James uses prompts such as these as she watches her students at work—and encourages parents to use similar phrases:

      • Tell me more about this.
      • Show me how it works.
      • Wow, I never thought about that before. Tell me about your thinking.
      • What’s going on in your brain right now?
      • What are you going to try next?

      James also has one phrase that she doesn’t allow students to use in her classroom: “I can’t do this!” This stifles creativity. Instead, she teaches them to use more accurate—and empowering—phrases such as, “This is hard!” and “I’m not able to do this yet, but I will someday!” Sesame Street’s “The Power of Yet” song can help you introduce this idea to your children.

    3. Expand Your Definition of Creativity
      Everything can have a creative element—from math to cooking to sports—so encourage kids to exercise their imagination in different domains. For example, Harvard education professor Heather Hill points out that creativity in math leads to higher-level problem solving. Parents can support kids’ mathematical creativity by asking lots of questions together, giving kids playful mathematical challenges and letting them solve them their own way, and looking for patterns at home and in nature.Digital apps can foster creative play too—if chosen carefully. Look for tools that promote open-ended thinking and creative exploration. For example, Common Sense Media has curated this list of “Best Creative Apps“; PBS Kids Scratch Jr. teaches coding skills while allowing kids to create their own interactive stories and games; and Explore Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood offers a “digital dollhouse” where kids can travel to different parts of the neighborhood, play dress-up, shop for food, make music with instruments, and play with a doctor’s kit.

Fred Rogers liked to remind adults that “play is really the work of childhood.” When we support this vital work, we help kids grow into creative, confident adults.

About Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris spent several years as a K-12 educator and as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility. She is a regular contributor for MindShift and the mother of two young children. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris.

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