Think about the creative types you know. Who comes to mind? Probably someone talented at drawing or painting; maybe a friend or family member who dances or plays an instrument. Some form of the arts, almost certainly. But to help kids thrive, we need to get a little more, well, creative with how we think about creativity.
Experts stress that creativity isn’t just about the fine arts, or other forms of expression. Creativity is in how we reach that final product—so it may manifest differently than you expect.
How Creativity Can Help Your Child in Challenging Situations
Dictionary definitions of the adjective creative include words and phrases such as “marked by the ability or power to create,” “imaginative” and “managed so as to get around legal or conventional limits.” ] Hopefully our kids aren’t trying to get around legal limits, but that aside, those are all qualities that are useful no matter what our child’s hobbies and gifts.
That’s because creativity is problem solving, according to Jason McCoy, a licensed clinical social worker, play therapist and art instructor in Denton. “A child who practices finding different solutions for problems feels more confident that they have what it takes to meet a difficult situation and overcome it,” says McCoy. “You will see [creativity] in a kid who can handle failure and is resilient. That’s the good stuff.”
“Let them struggle, because that is where they get creative.”
Obviously, with his background in art, McCoy does appreciate the value of creativity as it pertains to the arts. But it’s not only the ultimate expression (in the case of the arts, a painting or a performance, for example) that matters. It’s what your child gains from the experience, and how those lessons can be applied in other situations.
Frisco mom Summer Rose says enrolling her son Hudson in a theater class in elementary school was beneficial in many ways she did not expect. “He struggled a little bit with confidence, and he was more shy and reserved,” Summer recalls. “We were looking for an interest for him. Sports wasn’t his forte, so we tried theater.” Hudson flourished in the outlet, both on stage and in life. “It’s given him much more confidence.”
This makes sense, according to Antonia Jacinto—early intervention specialist with My Health, My Resources (MHMR) of Tarrant County—because creativity touches on every developmental system in one way or another. “I work with kids on overall development,” she says, “and creativity is part of their emotions, their movements and for sure their language and how they socialize. It’s all connected.”
Help Your Child Become a Creative Thinker
So how do we develop creative thinkers? To start, we need to examine our own misconceptions regarding creativity. We generally think of the fruits of creativity as being tangible achievements. Instead, shift your thinking to the fruits being the struggle and the process, where creativity is born.
Dallas mom of five Juleeta Harvey has been thinking about the creative process as a means of general problem solving for some time. “I find if my children are fixating on a problem—like a problem with a friend, let’s say—I try to first listen, then if they remain stuck [after talking about it, I] ask them to pause and do something else for a moment. Go for a walk or sweep the floor, as a way to change things up.” Her sons, ranging in age from 6 to 17, find that movement and working a smaller, more basic task can help their brains reset and see things differently, which in turn helps to foster more outside-the-box ideas.
The foundation for creative thinking begins earlier than you may expect. Jacinto says that developing creativity can begin in infancy, with eye contact, talking to your baby and reading to your baby, even if they cannot comprehend the story or book. “Books like First 100 Words or Pete the Cat are a good start, or even a picture book with no text. You can just look at it [with your baby] and describe what you are seeing.” Jacinto says these activities help grow the neural pathways that foster creative play.
“The first step is to praise the process instead of the outcome.”
As they grow, advises McCoy, parents can adopt three creativity-building habits—and they have far less to do with paintbrushes or piano lessons than they do the way parents approach their child’s work and play. “I would say the first step is to praise the process instead of the outcome,” he says. “Instead of praising the final product, highlight the effort. Be curious, wonder about different ways to do things.”
In lieu of offering how you would approach a problem, offer your child empathy, McCoy suggests. “Acknowledging the struggle and then asking questions using the phrase ‘I wonder’ is a great tool. So you might say, ‘I wonder what would happen if you tried to do this a different way?” He says empathy, patience and allowing the child to work within the limitations of the situation is where the creative problem solving begins to take root.
That means that as much as you may want to steer your child down a different road, don’t take over the activity. “Let them struggle, because that is where they get creative,” McCoy explains. “If a kid is trying to draw a person, they will erase it a few times and try again and again. We see that and we have the urge to jump in and fix it. If you try to fix it, you’ve robbed them of a chance to come up with a creative solution.”
That can be practiced from the time your kiddo wakes up in morning through when they fall asleep. “It can be done in any format, any medium, any subject, by simply asking your child to think of a different way to do something,” McCoy points out. “So if they are putting on their shoes, for example, you could be silly and say ‘I wonder if you could do that standing on one foot?’ You’ll know it’s working when it seems like they are getting a lot of ideas. When the ideas start flowing, creativity is happening.”
When it comes to toys or games to boost creativity, early childhood expert Antonia Jacinto suggests the more primitive, the better. “Books and puzzles are great,” she shares, “and so are sensory toys such as water tables and sand or dry rice. Anything that is open ended so that they can be imaginative as they play. And of course pretend play with your child is a great way to help kids be more creative, as parents model how things work.”
This brings with it the question of devices, and if screen time is a total creativity killer. “You know, it doesn’t have to be,” Jacinto says. “If parents can sit down with their child and watch together and then dialogue about what they are seeing, it can work for them and not against them.”
This article was originally published in October 2021.