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Reconnecting with Childhood and Creativity

EVEN AS A MUSEUM EDUCATOR, I find myself struggling with a desire to bring my son into my world rather than enter into his. Just the other day I was reminded how different our expectations and desires can be during a family pinch pot class I signed up for with my 5-year-old son. He spent a few minutes creating a pinch pot and quickly moved on to poking, pinching, and playing with a lump of clay. I leaned in to offer instruction on how to improve the structure of his pot and I watched as a wave of disappointment came to his face. He disengaged with his play and became focused on meeting my expectations. It wasn’t fun for anyone as he began asking for approval and support in every step of the way, rather than pursuing his own interests and explorations of clay.

Young children have a unique world view that is distinctly different than that of their older peers and adults. They aren’t yet bound by limitations of past experience or the need for anticipated “results.” In this instance, my son didn’t care about creating a pinch pot to take home; he was eager to play with and explore properties of a novel material.

It is critical we meet children where they are so we can effectively support them. Young children learn best through direct play and hands-on experiences with people, materials, and the natural world. Early learners start with a focus on understanding what a material is, and then they investigate how it works and what to do with it. Often children will repeat an action over and over to refine their physical abilities, explore concepts, or problem solve. It can be challenging to keep in mind how much time they need to explore, test, and repeat. The goal for young children isn’t to create something, it is to make meaning.

Today’s children will need to be innovative, imaginative, and comfortable with ambiguity and risk, in order to respond to and solve complex problems of the future. We can support them by providing time, space, and materials for open-ended play. In-depth explanations and demonstrations can come later in life.

Tips for fostering creativity in young children

Provide open-ended materials such as fabrics, play silks, wooden blocks, cardboard, boxes, and salt dough. They provide endless possibilities for transformations as unique as the children who bring them to life. Fabrics turned into forts and capes are the perfect backdrop for pretend play and role playing opportunities that help children develop alternative views and perspectives. Ready-made toys, coloring books, and screens leave little room for the imagination, since they are fixed and often associated with a set storyline. Have confidence that no instructions are needed even for children who may initially struggle with boredom. They will discover what to do and are often eager to explore and set their own boundaries.

  • Replace screen time with opportunities for play. A blank sketchbook is handy in the car to fill downtime on a long ride, at doctors’ offices, or in a restaurant. Keep art materials, such as drawing paper or a bin of simple musical instruments like shakers, rhythm sticks, and castanets, accessible, so children can create freely.
  • One of our key mantras at Chicago Children’s Museum is “Wait, Watch, Follow.” By slowing down and observing children’s play, we learn more about their current interests and abilities. Every child is different. And, of course, all kids develop at different rates, and in different ways. Watching mindfully is more valuable than providing constant feedback, commentary, and critique. As we follow the child’s lead, we let go of our own agendas and our desire to push our children to do more.
  • Focus your comments on visible efforts and choices rather than your personal assumptions. Doing so helps children gain confidence in their own choices and preferences. Open-ended questions such as, “What can you tell me about your creation?” will help ensure you don’t misjudge a situation.
  • Don’t answer all of your children’s questions. Instead encourage them to consider possible answers on their own and relax as you discover they don’t expect you to know it all. In the real world, few questions have one right answer and few problems have one solution. A response, such as “I wonder.” helps kids remain curious and consider many approaches and answers.
  • Remember, kids are washable. Let your kids get messy and take risks as they explore and learn how to handle new materials and investigate their possibilities and properties.
  • Get outside and explore all that nature has to offer. This can be as simple as taking a few moments to watch the clouds overhead or collect treasures such as pebbles, sticks, seed pods, and bits of wood.
  • Children this age learn by imitation so explore your inner artist alongside your child or independently, and have fun reconnecting with things you may not have tried in a while. If the arts aren’t in your comfort zone, you can still provide valuable support by demonstrating your personal interests in creative pursuits such as gardening, woodworking, cooking, handiwork, and more. Children and adults alike are at their best as creators, not simply as consumers.

Laura Reischel is the Arts and Cultural Engagement Specialist at Chicago Children’s Museum with over 20 years of experience as an arts administrator, educator, and exhibit developer with the Museum.

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