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Nurturing Creativity

Come over anytime and my house will be buzzing with creativity. No, you won't find my 3- and 7-year-old daughters painting masterpieces at their easels. But they may be finger-painting chocolate pudding on the countertop (when I'm not looking), tucking their stuffed animals into elaborate pillow nests, or spending hours at the sink with a set of washcloths and some Barbies (don't ask).

"Young children can be very creative," says Ellen Winner, Ph.D., author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. "They find it emotionally fulfilling to be playful and imaginative, to discover new ways to express themselves, and to come up with new ideas." For example, kids will use words in interesting combinations  -- like "yummy plummy"  -- or find a great way to climb the monkey bars at the playground.

But creativity is also about a child's ability to come up with a workable solution. "As kids go through life, they need to be able to look at any problem flexibly and imaginatively," says Winner  -- whether it's a baby pondering how to climb out of the crib, a toddler wondering how to build a tower, or a child trying to resolve a squabble with his pals.

Even though every child is naturally creative, parents can still do much to nurture that trait. The key is to stay at your child's pace and to be mindful of the stage she's at, says Dorothy Singer, a research scientist in the department of psychology and child study at Yale University and coauthor of Make-Believe. Often, well-meaning parents push their kids to do more than they can actually accomplish, stifling their creativity. For instance, if you try to make your 3-year-old draw stick figures when all she really wants to do is scribble, she's likely to give up in frustration. But if you know that scribbling is exactly how a 3-year-old expresses herself, you'll be more likely to make sure the paper and the markers are somewhere she can get to easily. Here are more ways you can give your child the freedom  -- and the tools  -- to explore what she's naturally drawn to.

Carolyn Hoyt writes frequently for Parenting.