How to Nurture Imagination
by Ronica O'Hara
Young children are naturally curious and inventive, yet research shows that their creative thinking skills peak at around age 6 and start to decline once they start formal schooling—a trend that’s accelerating in recent years with kids’ heavy digital use.
This doesn’t bode well for their future on our rapidly changing planet. “Our world continues to evolve at an unprecedented rate. It’s estimated that many of the jobs we will need in 10 or 20 or 30 years haven’t yet been invented,” says children’s education psychologist Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D., author of The Power of Your Child’s Imagination. “Kids of today need to stretch their creative juices to come up with these new jobs and prepare for an ever-challenging and changing world.”
I turned off the screens and stopped trying to provide entertainment for my children and the results were amazing.
Parents are integral in nourishing creativity, but according to research from the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, the role of parents is less about “teaching” creativity and more about creating a fertile environment in which creativity will take root, grow and flourish. Establishing that rich forum involves some simple strategies.
Encourage their curiosity. “An attitude of curiosity connected to wonder, acceptance, flexibility and openness can bring out innovation and novelty,” says Reznick. That means not only being responsive to kids’ questions like, “Why do strawberries have seeds on the outside?” but also engaging their imagination to explore the world and to solve everyday problems. “Ask them, 'What would it take to finish this project?’ Make it fun, brainstorm and mind-map, rather than make linear lists,” she suggests. “Ask open-ended questions, perhaps a bit out of the norm. 'How did you feel when you were writing that short story? What colors crossed your mind as you were singing? What music was flowing through your body as you were painting?’ The idea is to mix things up a bit to allow a new take on your child’s emerging creativity.”
Let them follow their bliss. “The biggest mistake I see parents making in wanting to encourage creativity is leading their children and telling them what to do,” says Jen Lumanlan, host and founder of the research-based parenting podcast YourParenting Mojo.com. “When we instead see our role not as being the Sage on the Stage but rather the Guide on the Side, we don’t have to drag the child through a curriculum kicking and screaming; instead, the child asks us for more opportunities to follow their interest. They will ask insightful questions, read books, watch videos, draw their ideas, consult with experts, put on plays, develop an understanding of the world with their whole bodies (not just their heads) and teach others. It’s truly incredible to see.”
Make creativity easy. Having lots of paper, paints, pens and other craft items on hand in a place where a child can easily access them enables creativity to flow when the mood hits. “You don’t have to have a huge budget for supplies. Save old cardboard boxes, empty paper towel rolls, cereal boxes and scrap paper. Give your child some markers and masking tape. I bet you’ll be amazed at what can be created from the simplest materials,” says Liam Davies, a Berkeley dad of two who blogs about sustainable family fishing at FishingCommand.com.
“Have plenty of loose parts available. Loose parts can be anything your child turns into something else,” suggests Maria Kemery, of Philadelphia, who blogs at the parenting website PlacesWeCallHome.com. “Bottlecaps become money, scarves become a doll’s dress, clean recycle bin items become robot parts or a collection of acorns becomes a bowl of soup. Having an assortment of loose parts encourages your child to engage in symbolic play (substituting one item for another), which builds creativity.”
Allow them to be bored. “Kids often complain they are bored. I love that, because bored is also where new ideas come from,” says Reznick. “Our mind abhors a vacuum, so sooner or later, a creative spark will ignite.”
That’s what Lorton, Virginia, mom Lauren Schmitz, who blogs at TheSimpleHomeschooler.com witnessed. “I turned off the screens and stopped trying to provide entertainment for my children and the results were amazing. My middle child, who is the most screen-obsessed kid that I know, started doing things like making her own magazine, building dioramas and putting on plays. She suddenly wanted to paint, build a robot and learn about aerial dancing. Boredom is the best way to give a child space to think, create, imagine and build.”