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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.

Babies: Budding Scientists

"A baby's job is to create theories about what the world is like and then test those hypotheses," says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib. For instance, after your 6-month-old kicks his mobile and sees it move a few times, he realizes that it's bound to react the same way if he whacks it again. So the best way to encourage your little experimenter is to open up his world.

  • Give your infant tummy time. There's not that much to see and think about when you're always lying on your back. Putting your baby on her stomach to play each day changes her usual perspective (alongside its other benefits, such as a stronger neck and the freedom to roll over). "I place Erin on a blanket and then sit down next to her so I can show her her own face in a mirror or how a rattle works or let her take swipes at a bell. When she figures out a way to make a sound, she looks totally happy," says Cathie O'Hara of Reston, VA, about her 3-month-old.

  • Stimulate his senses. When you're grocery shopping, put a ripe peach beneath your baby's nose so he can smell it. Run his hands against all sorts of fabrics  -- his furry stuffed animal, your silk blouse, your husband's sweater.

  • Show her the sights. Even if you're just walking her around the bedroom, point out the designs on the curtains, the shadows on the ceiling, the polka dots on her crib bumper. Give her time to stare at anything that seems to captivate her.

  • Encourage him to "talk back." Your baby is an attentive audience: He won't just mimic the sounds you make when you talk, he'll also think about them and even come up with new variations. Try alternating high sounds with low ones, loud sounds with soft ones. And it's never too early to start reciting nursery rhymes. Your baby can coo back in ways that replicate the rhythms.

    Toddlers: Little Explorers

    "A toddler's agenda is figuring out what people's minds are like. It's creative experimentation that's responsible for the beginnings of the terrible twos," says Gopnik. What experts call "testing limits" is actually a toddler thinking "What will people do when I use my crayons and draw on the living room wall, pull my sister's hair, or use that word that Mommy says when she's mad? Think I'll try it and find out."

    You don't want to dampen creativity by disciplining all of the so-called "terrible" out of your 2-year-old. Instead, set limits so that your little one has guidelines  -- she can't hurt herself or others, say  -- and then let her revel in her discoveries.

  • Offer household objects. Pots and pans, wooden spoons, car keys  -- there's no end to the fun a toddler can have with these objects. "Toddlers will take something and do everything on earth to it, including things we would never even think about trying," Gopnik says. Jason Moscow, 2, of Wyckoff, NJ, not only stacks his mom's plastic containers but also turns them into drums, fills them with mud, and uses the lids as shields to ward off his older sibs.

  • Play along. Toddlers are just starting to engage in pretend play. They'll try on roles that are familiar to them  -- Mom, Dad, the family dog  -- but their language skills aren't advanced enough to do it with one another. That leaves you as the preferred playmate. For instance, Jason loves to take a crayon and a piece of paper and pretend to be a waiter as his parents "order" meals.

  • Make your house safe for any creation. Megan O'Hara, 2, enjoys climbing on chairs and watching her mom, Cathie, make dinner. But instead of making her daughter get down, O'Hara just moves dangerous stuff out of her way. That gives Megan the freedom to, say, pile the wet potato peels into a small mountain on the countertop.

    After you've done all the requisite childproofing, choose a room in which you spend a lot of time and leave one low-to-the-ground drawer or cupboard filled with interesting items: plastic dishes, spoons, and measuring cups in the kitchen; unmatched socks, old pillowcases, and empty boxes where you sort and fold the laundry.

  • Accept some mess. "When you say no to a child's exploratory drive, it's usually to spare yourself something else to clean up," Singer says. The answer: Set ground rules. If your toddler delights in pouring the cookie cutters all over the floor, make sure he does it only in the kitchen. That way, the clutter is confined to one area.

  • Take your time. Try not to rush from destination to destination. Instead, stop to rub your child's hand against the bark of a tree and let her pluck a handful of fresh grass or sniff a flower.

    Preschoolers: Great Pretenders

    Why does creativity seem to peak at this age? "There's no neurobiological evidence for this, and yet we constantly see this wonderful flowering of the imagination during the preschool years," says Gopnik. Nothing engages a preschooler more than an elaborate game of make-believe: She'll dress up and act out her fantasies or replicate them with dolls, stuffed animals, or even rocks or pencils. And she'll never be more open and enthusiastic about art, music, and building things than she is right now.

  • Produce props. "One of the nice things about pretend play is that it's really cheap," says Gopnik. "Give a three-year-old a scarf and she will entertain herself quite happily."

    You don't need to have an attic to have fun. Throw hats, scarves, blouses, and dresses you no longer wear into a box. You can also pick up inexpensive clothes and accessories at yard sales.

  • Provide the right supplies. If your child loves music, for example, a set of rhythm instruments  -- a drum, some cymbals, a triangle  -- is better for him than that cute miniature guitar, which he can't really play. For the junior Picasso, fill shoe boxes with watercolors, finger paint, crayons, fat and thin markers, scissors, glue sticks, and tape.

  • Choose versatile toys. What you want are items you can play with in a variety of ways: blocks, toy trains and cars, small plastic characters, says Singer. Try to rotate your child's playthings once a week; that way, she won't tire of them so quickly.

  • Schedule plenty of playdates. At this age, imagination feeds off social interaction, whether that involves dressing up for fashion shows or turning the sofa into a hideaway. When Ben Howorth of Eugene, OR, was 5, he and his friends made up a game of tag that they still play today, four years later. "The rules are pretty complicated and change as they go along, but the great thing is that it's not only active and social, it's also incredibly imaginative," says his dad, Rich.

  • Read to her with flair. Rhyming books are great for preschoolers, as are fairy tales and stories that allow them to imagine other worlds. Telling familiar stories in new ways is another good way to spark fledgling imaginations. What if Goldilocks fell down and twisted her ankle in the woods, then met the three bears? What would happen?

  • Follow up his interests with a class or two. But find one that isn't too structured  -- for instance, a dance class in which the children can spend some time pretending they are animals or a music class that emphasizes marching in rhythm with the music (acting sad when the music gets slow, bopping around when the beat picks up). Even a sports class should be about running, jumping, and kicking instead of learning all the rules of soccer.

    Schoolkids: Private Thinkers

    When kids hit elementary school, creativity tends to take a backseat to conforming with other kids and following rules. You just need to make sure it doesn't vanish altogether.

  • Follow your child's lead. The little girl who makes up stories with her dolls and stuffed animals may love a puppet theater and some marionettes. The language lover may discover poetry  -- take her to the library and encourage her to make up her own poems.

  • Give him his space. Fantasy play tends to get internalized after the age of 6, so the preschooler who used to beg you to be the evil giant may stop playing whenever you walk into his room. For children this age, creativity requires some degree of privacy.

  • Give her the gift of free time. "I can't stress enough how overscheduling a child dampens her creativity," says Singer. Make sure your child has downtime to lie on the grass, stare up at the clouds, think, and let her imagination flourish.
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