"My children never play with toys the way they are supposed to," says Nadine Jackson, mother of two boys ages six and three, who lives in Blackwood, New Jersey. "They often take toys apart, stack them on top of each other, or use them as props in their little shows. They love to play with empty boxes and paper towel rolls. They use tape and markers, glue, and paint. They create 'projects' and really make a mess everyday," she says.
Yet, Jackson allows her sons to play unhindered. "Why should they play with toys the way a manufacturer directs? I let them be free with it. They have fun coming up with wild stories and play for hours, and then we have to clean it all up," she explains.
Elaine Fantle Shimberg, author of Blending Families, advocates this approach as well. She notes that parents should allow children to come up with their own creative expressions. "Praise, don't be critical of a child's creative efforts. A picture doesn't have to be perfect, just the child's expression," she says.
A "creative corner" in your home with age-appropriate materials such as play dough, crayons, plain paper, paste, safety scissors, stickers, colored construction paper, and pipe cleaners will encourage creative expression. "Let them make a mess...but teach them to help clean it up afterwards," says Fantle Shimberg.
When selecting toys for children, parents should consider playthings that develop creativity. Toys that encourage creativity by being open-ended, that is having more than one right way to be played with, challenge young minds more than toys with just one purpose.
Additionally, there are many things children will enjoy playing with creatively that you may already have at home; for example, saving old scarves, nightgowns, shirts, and shoes and putting together a dress-up box will lend itself to "pretend play." "When the kids put on a play, be an enthusiastic audience," adds Fantle Shimberg.
Most importantly, Fantle Shimberg recommends appealing to all of a child's senses. Try these methods to get started:
- Play different kinds of music
- Let kids play with modeling clay
- Have them distinguish odors like flowers, fish, and cabbage
- Have children close their eyes and feel sandpaper, fur, and silk, or taste sugar, salt, and sour items, etc.
Hosting a creative environment in your home might not be the norm—and could get a bit messy—but children in a home that encourages creativity will grow and develop in wonderful, sometimes surprising ways.