Nurturing Creativity in Our Children: More Mess, More Time


"Creativity comes through us, not from us." ~ the concept of the muse.

“Creativity comes through us, not from us.” ~ the concept of the muse.

Creativity:  putting things together in novel ways, or seeing the world, or a given problem, with fresh eyes. (

“Oh, my, he’s such a mess!!”

Grandma could barely get the words out through her laughter.  Her loving observation of my older son at age three was spot on.  There he was, sitting at our kitchen table working on crafts:  stuff was piled everywhere, stuck together randomly with glue from a dripping bottle.  His clothes were streaked with food (oddly, even now, breakfast is on his person before he’s even had any), his face mustachioed with lunch.

The perfect picture of a creative kid.

“Fresh” is not a word I would use to describe my now eleven-year-old son (he prefers to play with water balloons in the shower rather than lathering up), but “novel” certainly does.  He struggles with actual math but can reason out a correct answer.  He brings motion to a lego beach scene by adding a surfer riding a wave.  He is so not me in this respect and my jaw drops at his way of manipulating and perceiving the world.

Which got me thinking…is creativity something we are born with or something we can practice and develop?

Creativity must be at least partially innate, because despite my need for order and neatness and rules, my son still has a darn good creative side.  On the other hand, my research turned up several ways to help the creatively-challenged learn to “see a problem with fresh eyes:”

♠Bless the mess.   Controlled chaos actually helps the creative process.  In fact, kids in consistently tidy, orderly homes are less creatively inclined.  So keep the artsy stuff in plain site and ready to be manipulated into something amazing.   Our living room now has a corner (who am I kidding, the whole area is a minefield) devoted to Legos, and my kids can have at it whenever the creative mood strikes.  Above their “work” area I have a lovely tea towel that states:  Pardon the mess, my children are making memories.  It keeps my feet on the ground and my kids happy.

♣Expand the boundaries.  Safety always comes first, but “artsy” uses for everyday things jumpstarts the ability to think outside the (crayon) box.  For example, consider water play with measuring cups and a sieve or “finger painting” with tinted shaving cream.  I remember laying a huge piece of cardboard on the kitchen floor and dumping leftover (washable) finger paints onto it.  My kids, still toddlers, had a blast crawling through the paint, making hand- and footprints and, yes, “butt” prints.  Jackson Pollock had nothing on those diapered dynamos.  (And it was bath night, anyway…)

♥Provide ample free time.  Many experts tout boredom as more important for child development than squeezing in that extra music lesson or sports endeavor.  Kids need to be bored and compelled to  discover ways to self-entertain. The challenge of filling idle time helps kids learn to problem-solve and make decisions.  Open up that chunk of time after school and see what happens.  (But screen time should not be an option.)

♦The Odd Couple.  (For the record, I’m only old enough to remember reruns of this classic comedy, not the first airing…)  Scrupulously tidy Felix and chronically sloppy Oscar made truly odd roommates…but it worked.  The same is true of an art bin:  all that great messy stuff in one neatly organized spot, easily accessible to your child.  If the bin can be “stashed” in plain sight, even better.  Then your creative mess-maker can dig right in whenever she wants to make her next masterpiece.  Just be sure to set appropriate limits for where the creativity should and should not happen (as in, the window markers are for the windows only)

♠Of course, those in-the-know have some advice on what not to do…so here are some of the “don’ts” that can quash creativity:

     ~ Don’t self-criticize.  I know I’m terrible about this.  I can’t build Lego cars  or paint worth a hoot and I know I say so to my kids.  Repeatedly.  But experts explain that this sends the message to kids that they can’t, either.  And that means they won’t try.  Creativity means taking some risks.  And if we parents do so alongside our kids (family pottery class, anyone?), even better.

     ~ Don’t hover.  Physical space = mental space, especially with the creative process.  Kids need to work and rework their projects at their own pace and in their own way.  Plus they love to surprise an anxiously awaiting audience with a masterpiece they are proud of.  Fuel their creativity and your own curiosity by letting kids just “do their thing.”

     ~ Don’t give blind praise (or criticism).  We all say, “I love this (drawing, clay pot, etc.) you made!”  But focusing on the finished product can actually hinder future creativity (after all it’s called the creative process, not the creative product).  Kids can become afraid to try new things if they think there is a chance we won’t say “I love this!” Instead, we parents should ask “Where did your idea for this project come from?” Or “Why did you make this the way you did?”

Creativity can be a draining process, just as much as soccer practice or basketball camp. It may appear that our kids are doing “quiet things” when weaving a potholder or gluing a collage, but the mental gymnastics can be tiring.  As with the active athletically-charged child, be sure your little artist gets enough rest, a balanced diet and a break from the creative effort.

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