Fred Rogers, Alice Munro, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Ella Fitzgerald. The list of quotable men and women who know success comes from creativity is long.
But if we focus on just their products, innovations, or music our memories become short. We might become intimidated and resentful of the intellectual and financial success of others, forgetting that their success started with the same tools we all have access to: curiosity and imagination.
I am not suggesting that my children or yours will become the next Nobel Prize winner, but if we want our kids to be successful, we need to give them space to be creative. I am also not suggesting that success should be measured in terms of prizes won, money made, or notoriety. We should all be considered grateful if we raise kids who are happy, healthy, and passionate about something. Where there is passion there is curiosity. And if kids are curious, they will want to learn.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Fred Rogers
When kids are given the time to play, even if that time initially starts as cries of boredom, they will create something.
My daughter will spend hours engaged in fantasy play, and if she isn’t given time before school to dwell in whatever world she has created in her mind for the day, she is a bear of a child to get out of the door.
I’d like to say that her creativity is a result of my fine parenting skills, but it is more likely a result of her personality, a love of storytelling, and my inability to spend as much time with her as she would like. My daughter has younger twin brothers she is competing with for my and my partner’s attention. Mama needs to get stuff done. I play with my kids, but I often tell them to go play by themselves.
Boxes become boats, ribbons become leashes on stuffed animals, and blocks become kingdoms.
Oh, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. There is fighting, stealing, crying, and negotiating during open-ended playtime, but I can’t micromanage everything. I trust they will figure it out. They are learning how to solve problems, how to interact with other human beings, and how to speak in a way that allows them to be heard. They are learning critical social skills through play.
In a recent article published on NPR Ed, Erika Christakis, author of The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups, stated this about unscheduled play time at home:
“I think boredom can be a friend to the imagination. Sometimes when kids appear to be bored, actually they haven’t had enough time to engage in something. We quickly whisk it away and move them along to the next thing. And that’s when you say, ‘How can I help the child to look at this in a new way? To try something new, to be patient.’”
Christakis reminds us that less is more when it comes to shuttling our kids to lessons and sports practices. Kids are perfectly capable of filling their time and space with creativity. Let them.
“Logic will get you from A-B. Imagination will get you everywhere.” – Albert Einstein
A point made in the Wiley Handbook of Genius reminds us that while child prodigies may grow up to be successful adults, their time mastering an instrument, mathematical equations, or scientific theories may fail them in other areas. They lose the ability to be original. The children who become adults capable of using their knowledge to create new insights are the ones who never lost their ability to be creative.
Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Agnes de Mille were not only masters of their crafts but were able to transform them into something new and unique. Without playing by the rules, or at least without being suffocated by the external pressure of society’s rules, these geniuses were artists.
I am a firm believer that kids need expectations on how to behave; rules can create boundaries that produce responsible individuals. I am also a believer that kids need to think for themselves, allowing independent thinking and natural consequences to guide them toward success. As a parent, the balance between these two beliefs can be difficult.
One place where this isn’t difficult is at Wildflowers Studio, a multi-sensory creative playspace for children in South Burlington, Vermont. The studio was started by Lyndsy Blais, a mother of four with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Education from Muhlenberg College and a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Vermont, and business partner Samantha, who earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Science at the College of Brockport.
Their matched passion for giving children safe and nurturing environments to explore their creativity and curiosity has allowed me to focus on the benefits of messy play instead of the mess.
I struggle with the pressure to create Pinterest perfect crafts with my kids. I struggle with what feels like litter all over the house after an art project. I struggle with remembering that the process is what is important, not the product. I talked to Blais about this. Here is what she had to say:
“We [at the studio] set out invitations for play, exploration, and discovery just by placing interesting materials within the child’s reach. Adults may take a look at the materials and have an idea about how they should be used. [Sometimes] parents or caregivers look at the materials and ask, ‘Now….what are they supposed to do here?’ Usually the child has already dived deep into the materials, sorting through, taking out for inspection, putting together and taking apart. And what is so intriguing is how every child’s approach is completely unique. This idea that they should simply play, experiment and discover according to their own plan gets lost sometimes on some adults.
We have been trained to acquire an answer, to seek perfection. But there is such value in the open-ended-ness—the loosening of expectations, the letting go of should. There is joy and freedom in the process without stressing the need for a perfect end product, or any end product at all. This is the true meaning of mindfulness that we are attempting to teach.”
I then thanked Blais for giving my kids and myself permission to be imperfect, messy, and creative.
“To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.”
– Georgia O’Keefe
For some, just creating a safe place in the world takes courage.
The arts are therapeutic hand holders, giving children and adults the safety net to think, act, and create freely. Art therapy has been used to help patients express themselves, allowing therapists to assist in the healing process. Parents of children with special needs, autism, and sensory issues have turned to art studios for the freedom and comfort they provide their children to explore the world.
A mother of a two year old with Sensory Processing Disorder admitted that her child can be unruly at times, but described her child as ‘completely different’ when he was engaged in the sensory and art activities within the walls of Wildflowers Studio. Another parent of a daughter with unique learning and health needs, and also a visitor of the Vermont studio, said this:
“Kayla was able to roam freely and explore things at her own pace. She explored the wall station where she put colorful glue on paper and made a collage out of bits of wrapping paper. An old bathtub filled with sand allowed her to shovel and build. And she loved the wall of old machines: a pencil sharpener, old phone, old door locks, heating thermometer, fishing reel, and old jacket zippers. This place is occupational therapy central!”
Studies have proven the therapeutic benefits of creativity. An article on The American Art Therapy Association’s website references this particular finding: “Engagement with making visual art has recently been shown to increase functional connectivity in the brain and is correlated with increased resilience or stress hardiness.” That is more than a beneficial side effect; that is a necessary survival skill. Other known skills gained from open-ended sensory and imaginative play include problem solving, critical thinking, fine and gross motor movement, and language development.
“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try.”– Dr. Seuss
Our kids don’t need expensive toys, fancy schools, or an abundance of extracurricular activities.
They need our ability to see their interests and then help them explore them through play and creativity. Their interests may lead them to particular classes, colleges, and careers but they shouldn’t be seen as the only paths to learning. We shouldn’t restrict our children’s ability to learn new things just because one day they are interested in something completely different.
Curiosity keeps our kids engaged and creativity keeps them curious. If we can raise children with creative literacy, we will raise kids who will change the world. We need to give them the space to try.