Expert Advice on How to Unleash a Child’s Imagination

Preschoolers are wildly creative.

They invent games on the spot, role-play countless personalities and color both inside and outside the lines — and sometimes on living-room walls. But then something happens: They go to school.

“They’ve been learning at this astonishing pace until they run into the world that’s very linear and very expository,” says Susan Marcus, co-author of The Missing Alphabet: A Parents’ Guide to Developing Creative Thinking in Kids(Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2012). Suddenly, creativity is replaced with rote learning, and getting the right answer becomes the goal.

“Our schools are focused on getting kids to remember things, on knowledge and not imagination,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a University of California at Berkeley sociologist. “The rest of the world has moved beyond that. It’s not that we don’t need to teach kids math and to read, but if you look at the darlings of the business world, the people who are really thriving are the creative ones.”

The good news is that every child is wired to be creative — just remember those living-room walls. What parents have to do is simply unleash their kids’ natural creativity. We talked with Marcus and Carter to learn how you can do that.

Show and Tell

Step one is to demonstrate that you value creativity, Marcus says.

“If the parents value it, the kids will value it,” she says. “That’s just the way it works.”

A good way to assess what you value is to look at how you spend your time and your money. How much of your free time or your disposable income goes to creative activities? When you spend your Friday evenings at the ballet and your Saturday afternoons restoring old cars, you demonstrate the importance of creativity.

Go With the Grain

Next, Marcus says, spend some time thinking about what materials and activities really attract your kids.

The point here is not to pigeonhole them but to build on their natural inclinations. “Look for that,” she says. “It’s visual information, nonverbal information. Parents have to notice the patterns and then trust their intuition.”

So what do you do with that information? If your child leans toward the visual arts, provide art supplies, set up studio space and give him a place to display his creations. You might even cover a bedroom wall with chalkboard paint to give him space to express himself.

The approach would be very different for movement-oriented children.

“They need space to move; they need opportunities to move; they need to go see dancing; they need to try out all kinds of different kinds of things,” Marcus says.

Feed the Brain

Carter says creativity flourishes when kids are in the right state of mind. There are two relevant brain states, she explains: “pause and plan” and “fight or flight.” In the former state, the body sends nutrients to the prefrontal cortex, where creativity is housed. In the latter state, nutrients go to other parts of the brain and creativity gives way to instinctual action.

“That doesn’t mean you need to be in an aggressive, adrenaline-pumped state for this to happen; that’s a misconception,” Carter says. “Low-level stress is going to send little alarms to the brain to conserve energy and to put that energy in the muscles — or at least not put it in the prefrontal cortex.”

Reducing stress, then, is an obvious way to boost creativity. One way to do that is to reduce the pressure to perform and achieve, something kids face all too much these days.

“I think it’s really important to create a performance-free zone for kids,” she says.

Learning Experiences

Too often, adults ask questions, such as, “Did you get the trophy?” and “How are your test scores?” instead of asking, “What did you learn from your mistakes?”

“[Kids] see mistakes as something to be ashamed of,” she says. “They don’t have any understanding that the elite performers in our society in every field — whether it’s the arts or sports or academics, you name it — all have a positive orientation toward mistake-making and failure.”

A second way to reduce stress, Carter says, is to warm up gradually, much like an athlete stretches before a game. In a group setting, for example, she recommends having playful warm-up activities rather than simply getting right down to business.

“If you’ve got one hour, I would spend 20 minutes on the setup,” she says.

Finally, Carter says it’s important to feed the brain — literally. The prefrontal cortex is very glucose intensive, so a glass of lemonade can help get the creative juices flowing.

Of course, some kids might prefer a piece of fruit or a granola bar or a box of raisins, which takes us back to Marcus’ point about going with the grain.

Many schools still think kids are “all little cups to fill up with information and that they’re all just alike,” she says. “We know that’s not true, and we know that it is crucial to their learning to look from a different viewpoint.”

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