Some of the happiest kids I know stir up mud stew in old pots on summer days. They paint sidewalks, make snakes from clay, and plant potatoes when given a chance. These kids tape paper into chains, draw gardens, and make pipe cleaner people who hang from trees and slide down stairs. Somewhere in these children’s lives there is room for their imaginations to stretch. The kind of imagination with no apparent purpose. It idles and hums along. It swoops and swings, unfolding new ideas where it lands. Our imaginations are a large part of who we are and where we are headed. Our lives are bound by what we can envision, and the envisioning process begins in childhood.
Consider the home the seed bed of creativity. It is where we learn to imagine the possibilities and ways to make them happen. One of the most important things parents can do to encourage this process is to cultivate a climate where creativity is welcome. Creativity does not require huge amounts of money, a fancy easel, or a computer. It does require a corner to create in with a few supplies, the time to make it happen, and a certain amount of surrender by parents to creative disorder.
Space and Supplies
Let’s begin with the corner to create in. Not a room (although that would be dreamy), a basement, or a studio. Simply a space where creative resources are handy. These resources can include a box of art supplies, a dress-up box, and my family’s favorite, and inventor’s box. They are simple to put together. The art box is the most used resource box in our home. Include things normally reserved for adults: good scissors, stapler, a paper punch. Paper (tissue, construction, typing, graph, etc.), felt tips, glue sticks, stamps and ink pads, clear tape, bingo markers, sharp pencils, scratch-on letters, pipe cleaners, doilies, blank note cards, clay, colored paper clips, erasures, etc.
Whether you have boys or girls, toddlers or teens, a box filled with thrift shop treasures will last through years of plays, Halloween costumes, and games of pretend. We have collected basketball uniforms, filmy peignoir sets, cowboy boots and gold slippers. There are wigs and jewelry, glasses and hats in our box, along with hunter’s vests and bathrobes. All found at thrift shops and garage sales for a few dollars.
Our beloved inventor’s box is nothing more than a junk drawer’s contents in a box. It holds rubber bands, scraps of wood, corks and wire. There is an old transistor radio, a broken egg beater, tiny motors from electronic supply stores, and the batteries to run them. There are bolts and nails and a big roll of duct tape. Consider throwing in straws, small cans, and old game pieces.
The ideal place for your boxes is a room off the kitchen with a big old table (if I had my way, I would turn every formal dining room in America into an ART ROOM ). Children seem to create best under our feet, near light and familiar domestic routines. We are fooling ourselves to think kids will go down to a dark basement or an out of the way room to create (would you?). They want a corner where the project can sit undisturbed, where they can call out for us to come and see! Pull out a card table and leave the boxes underneath it, within easy reach. These boxes hold the wondrous ingredients to express imaginations, and will provide hours of self-directed fun.
Time is inextricably linked with creativity. You cannot use your imagination, or bring an idea to fruition without the time to do it in. We unwittingly rob children of time in several ways--with television, and with an overabundance of activities where adults determine the rules, the process, and the product. Classes in music, dance and belonging on a soccer team do not necessarily enrich children. It often puts them on a fast track to burn out at tender ages. The time spent on classes, practicing and performing can deplete a child’s creative energy--energy that could be spent claiming his or her imagination without an adult’s well intentioned interference.
For most children, television eats up more time than anything else. By simply turning off the TV set, you are adding hours of creative time to your child’s day. It can be difficult in the beginning. She will do everything in her power to convince you why she should watch cartoons, and fret and fume and stomp around. These are good signs! It means your child is grappling with boredom. Think of boredom as an ally, for it leads to the place where ideas are born and carried out. Boredom is a bog invitation to do anything to escape its clutches. Imagining your way out of it breeds resourcefulness, a powerful skill to possess in life.
Most kids are equipped to make things happen. Most parents are not. It can be a mess. And we do not always have the time or the energy for the disorder. Creativity is not always messy, but the best activities often are. Think of it as a feast. When we sit down to a delicious meal, someone had to chop, peel, bake and stir her way to the food before us. There are pots and pans in the sink, and piles of dirty dishes. Creativity is a feast, not a fast food. Someone has to paint and poke and glue his way through it. We need to be reminded to surrender to the disorder of undefined feasts, to give in to the mess in dirt and paint and scattered cushions on the floor.
Surrendering to disorder does not mean your child rampages through the day mashing clay into the carpet, or moving restlessly from one activity to the next. It is valuing the true creative drive in your child above your need to keep things in place. It is saying yes to a highway of chalk on the driveway and helping to make a batch of cookies. Yes to playing with Daddy’s shaving cream in the bathtub, and a tea party with graham crackers for all the dolls. This is the stuff of memories, of a childhood well lived. Years from now no one will remember with fondness the clean house and scrubbed floors. We remember the dandelion bouquets and the hand painted cards. Surrendering to a child’s imagination is being aware that there is no mess in the world that cannot be cleaned up. Not one.
Creative kids tend to be happy kids. They are the flexible thinkers, the dreamers and dawdlers. These kids are not tethered to the probable, not always satisfied with mainstream answers to solving problems. They take risks with new ideas, and then take the ideas further than most. They grow into tomorrows Einstein, Picasso, and Spielberg. Imagination informs their lives, and the future stretches before them as a horizon of possibilities. It begins with a corner in a warm room.