November 15, 2010
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
Creativity isn't an automatic part of childhood anymore.
Children are naturally creative, open to new ideas, and born ready to use their imaginations. But for many children, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to use that imagination and be creative.
Increasingly, a child's life is organized around structured activities, such as music lessons and sport practices, and around television, video and computer games. This leaves little room for expressing themselves creatively.
This is a tremendous loss and can have lifelong effects for children. The ability to be creative impacts future academic and job success. It also impacts behavior and relationships, as creativity is a big part of how people find their ways through difficult situations in life. It's very important that parents do something to preserve this important part of childhood.
In order to take back creativity, parents need to be prepared to:
- Turn off the TV and computer. I know it keeps the kids occupied, but there have to be limits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours of screen time a day, and none for kids under the age of 2.
- Leave some time unscheduled every day. This may mean cutting back the number of team sports or lessons in your child's life but it pays off in the long run.
- Play with your child. You will need to put your own activities aside and interact with your child, at least to get things started.
Here are some ideas for ways to encourage your child to be creative and have fun at the same time:
- Make art. Go to a craft store and buy a bunch of inexpensive paints (watercolor and acrylic) and paper. Get a few canvases, too. They aren't very expensive, and painting on them makes kids feel like real artists. Join in. Visit an art museum or look at art books for ideas. Designate a place in your house to display the art once you're done. This makes your child feel proud of her efforts and want to make more!
- Make up stories. Take turns adding to a story as you walk or drive somewhere. Write them down (your child can dictate to you) and make illustrations to go with them. Put them together in a book and keep it out for you and others to read. (It's not hard to make books just punch holes in paper and tie string through the holes.)
- Make music. Play whatever instruments you have at home, or make your own out of anything you have around the house. There are some great computer programs, too, that can help your child compose music, including some free online ones. (Use your favorite search engine to find them.) This is one way you can use screens to encourage creativity!
- Play dress-up. A trip to a local thrift store can help build your costume selection very inexpensively (as can a trip to the back of your closet). A sheet can be a toga, a towel a cape. Join in. Put on a playyou can even write a script with them.
- Do puppet shows. You can make puppets out of socks or even just paper lunch bags.
- Make things. Make cities out of legos or blocks. Create animals out of clay. When I was little, my sister and I made dollhouses out of boxes my dad got from a liquor store. We cut out doors and windows, and used wallpaper sample books to decorate the walls.
If your kids (and you) aren't used to doing these things, it may take a little while to get them engaged but stick with it. Before you know it, you'll all be having a wonderful time. And while you're having fun, your children will be learning important life skills and you'll be strengthening your relationship with them.
Sounds great to me.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.