9 Ways to Nurture Creativity

Nurturing children’s creativity can be fun and rewarding for both parents and youngsters while also paying off in the future for the child’s development and society at large.

“The world is rapidly changing. If we fast-forward a child from toddler at 2 years old to entering college within about 16 years, they can learn to walk a straight line, conform to the norm, and help build a world in only slightly dissimilar shades of gray,” says Karen DeBord, a N.C. Cooperative Extension specialist and professor in child development at N.C. State University. “Or a child can color outside of the lines, march to a different tune, question why things are as they are, and experiment with color. Which one will most likely creatively experiment and possibly discover cures for diseases or invent something new and different for the world?”

Encouraging creativity boosts self-confidence and helps students take risks and attempt problems they may not try at first, says Courtney Rudder, the academically gifted resource specialist at Morrisville Elementary School. “In the short term, [creativity] develops and grows as students experiment and learn new concepts. In the long term, it has added a ‘bank’ of strategies and practice and internalization of the process to apply to problems they will encounter in the world,” Rudder notes.

Enjoy, and join, the process

“Creativity emerges in the context of play,” says Kate Gallagher, an educational psychologist and director of the FPG Child Care Program in Chapel Hill. “In order for that to occur, children need interesting environments, extended time periods, and adults who support children’s play ideas.”

The following ideas can help children express their natural creativity:

1. Build on children’s sense of wonder. DeBord suggests that parents have young children feel prickly grass, touch cold icicles, smell the fresh air, and hear the sound of crickets. She also encourages exposing children to a variety of tastes. “When children are in their toddling years, they are naturally exploring and examining, Debord says. “They are just developing language and using all of their senses to learn.”

2. Participate in your child’s play. Lev Vygotsky, an early-20th-century Russian psychologist, thought that adult participation in symbolic, or pretend, play is essential, according to Gallagher. She cites the book Tools of the Mind by Elena Bodrova and Debra Leong, based on Vygotsky’s ideas.

“When kids are supported or challenged in their pretend play, they play more sophisticated schemes and routines. There is emerging evidence that creative play with more complex themes supports children’s developing brain processes,” Gallagher explains. This includes attention, planning, memory strategies and understanding perspective that help children with learning in preschool and beyond.

“This play support is most needed when children begin to engage in pretend play, around the age of 2,” she says. “By the time children are ready for formal school, they often will rely on peers for creative play ideas.”

3. Ask open-ended questions. This is a real skill, DeBord says. “Who, what, when, where, why, how, tell me are all starters to open-ended questions. Questions such as ‘Why do you think the ants can carry such a load?’ ‘Where does the wind go?’ ‘Where could we find the answer to that question?’ [and] ‘What else can you do with that?’ can help promote critical and analytical thinking in children.”

4. Help children be resourceful. When children ask questions, help them find the answers in a book or online, DeBord suggests. “Show them how to ask others and tap resources. As parents, we don’t have to be the experts and know everything, but modeling resources helps them learn resourcefulness, too,” she says.

5. Give the gift of time. “Children need extended periods of time — as much as an hour or more for preschoolers — to develop their artistic and creative play endeavors,” Gallagher says. “Younger children may need help staying focused on their play activities for longer periods of time.”

6. Use art and nature to draw out your child’s creativity. An early childhood teaching strategy that emphasizes children’s creativity is the Reggio Emilia approach, which was developed in Italy. Teachers or parents using this method capture children’s interests and use art and nature to engage them.

“The key for nurturing young children’s creativity begins with recognizing their creativity, watching, listening and observing — really going where they are in their art,” Gallagher says.

7. Provide access to interesting art, music and imaginative materials, Gallagher suggests. Visit art museums, listen and dance to all kinds of music, and have a variety of art supplies and dress-up costumes available.

8. Encourage activity. Passivity occurs when watching television, DeBord says, “so warnings against too much media use are important.” Turn off the TV, the computer, and video or hand-held games and engage children in physical or mental activities that inspire their natural creativity.

9. Encourage children to stretch their problem-solving skills. The Odyssey of the Mind program, available in Triangle area schools, promotes creative problem-solving skills in a cooperative team environment. Susanne Dudash, of Cary, coached her son’s Odyssey of the Mind team for two years.

“Thinking ‘outside of the box’ is essential to developing a unique solution,” she says. “The team also learned to respect everyone’s opinion and ideas. Instead of quickly discarding a teammate’s idea, they learned to ask probing questions to evaluate the idea.”

Individuals who are allowed to be creative will be more confident, committed, and interested in finding solutions or making new things, says Melody Brunson, an instructional resource teacher at Morrisville Elementary School.

Children are innately creative, according to Gallagher. “The adult’s role is to follow the child’s lead and take advantage of opportunities to extend and challenge her interests,” she says.

Cathy Downs lives in Cary with her family.

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