A lot of parents believe that their children are either born with artistic talent or they’re not. But research suggests that artistic creativity, along with other kinds of creativity, is more of a skill than an inborn talent, and it’s a skill parents can help their kids develop.
Many researchers believe we have fundamentally changed the experience of childhood in a way that impairs creative development. Toy and entertainment companies provide an endless stream of prefab characters, images, props, and plotlines that allow kids to put their imaginations to rest. Children no longer need to pretend a stick is a sword in a game or story they’ve imagined; they can play Star Wars with a readymade light-saber, in costumes designed for the specific role they’re playing.
But researchers have also identified steps we can take to help kids tap into their own creative potential. Drawing on that research, here are some ideas for fostering creativity in kids.
- Provide the resources for creative expression. The key resource here is time. Kids need a lot of time for unstructured, child-directed, imaginative play—unencumbered by adult direction, and independent of a lot of commercial stuff. Research by Kathy Hirsch-Pasek of Temple University, among others, has found that children attending academic preschools show no advantage in reading or math achievement over kids who go to play-based preschools. But they do tend to have higher levels of test anxiety, exhibit less creativity, and have more negative attitudes toward school. Look for resources that help kids create but that don’t tell them what to create. I’ve been amazed by some of the things my kids do with art supplies, cheap cameras, old costumes, and building materials.
- Make your home a Petri dish for creativity. At dinnertime, for example, brainstorm activities for the upcoming weekend, encouraging the kids to come up with things they’ve never done before. Resist pointing out which ideas aren’t possible, or deciding which ideas are best. The focus of creative activities should be on the process—generating (vs. evaluating) new ideas. Another way to nurture a creative atmosphere at home is to encourage kids to take risks, make mistakes, and fail. Yes, fail: In her book Mindset, Stanford researcher Carol Dweck shows that kids who are afraid of failure and judgment will curb their own creative thought. Share the mistakes you’ve made recently, so they get the idea that it’s okay to flub up.
- Allow kids the freedom and autonomy to explore their ideas. For me, this means not always being so bossy! External constraints—making kids color within the lines, so to speak—can reduce creativity in thinking. In one study, when researchers first showed kids how to make a plane or truck with Legos, kids showed less creativity in their own building than when they were just let loose to make whatever they wanted with the same Lego set.
- Encourage kids to read for pleasure and participate in the arts, rather than watch TV. Studies by children’s health researcher Dimitri Christakis have found that TV viewing before the age of three can harm kids’ language development and attention spans later in life. Studies by Dutch researcher T.H. van der Voort suggest that watching TV might reduce kids’ creative imagination, and violent TV shows are associated with a decrease in kids’ fantasy play and an increase in aggressiveness. Less screen time means more time for creative activities, like rehearsing a play, learning to draw, or reading every book by a favorite author.
- Resist the temptation to reward kids for their creativity. A study led by child development researcher Melissa Groves has found that incentives interfere with the creative process, reducing the flexibility of children’s thinking. Instead of trying to motivate kids with rewards and incentives, we parents sometimes need to back off so that kids can work on the creative activities that they’re intrinsically motivated to do. Instead of rewarding a child for practicing the piano, for example, we can encourage her to do something she enjoys more—maybe draw at the kitchen table or dance around the living room.
- Try to stop caring what your kids achieve. I think this is one of the greatest challenges we parents face in today’s ultra-competitive world. But Dweck’s research is very clear that kids gain confidence from an emphasis on process rather than product. This can be hard advice to follow when our kids come home from school with just the end product of an art project. But whether they’re working at home or at school, we can emphasize the creative process by asking questions: Are you finished? What did you like about that activity? Did you have fun?
Perhaps most importantly, research shows that fostering creativity in our kids will help them with more than art: Creativity is essential to science, math, and even emotional intelligence. Creative people are more flexible and more successful problem solvers, making them better poised to take advantage of new opportunities. So when we nurture the artistic lives of our children, we give them the tools they need to thrive in our rapidly changing world.