Sparking Creativity in Your Child

By Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.

(Originally published in Ladies Home Journal, October, 1993)

(c) Meredith Corporation, 1993

When Julia was nine, she created an imaginary world of "weepals." There were one hundred sixty-four of these fantasy creatures, each related to the others in some way, and each with its own name, personality and physical characteristics.  She even designed houses and furniture for them.   Now, at the age of twenty-three, Julia manages a real-life social system.  She coordinates the activities of several departments in a law firm. Childhood creativity was a key ingredient in Julia's grown-up success.  In the same way, the seemingly innocent, aimless activities that your child engages in--making up funny songs, inventing strange contraptions made of household odds and ends, drawing crazy cartoons--may be instrumental in helping to prepare the way for later accomplishments.Childhood is a time of natural creativity and curiosity.  But while many people grow up and lose this precious gift in the "reasonable" world of adulthood, those who maintain a connection with their creative self find a world of satisfaction and richness that can't be measured.  What can you do to foster this vital capacity in your own kids?

1. Nourish your own creativity.  If a child grows up in a household where the adults around him suffer from psychosclerosis (hardening of the mind), then he will likely come down with a bad case of it, too.  Share with your child your own creations--poems, drawings, stories, even ones from your own childhood,if you still have them.  Every day, vow to be a little bit whimsical and spontaneous: Create a funny voice, make up a silly dance, point out something around the house or in the neighborhood that you hadn't noticed before.  Encourage new ways of seeing the world and novel ways of doing conventional things.

2. Avoid judgments, criticisms and comparisons.   Evaluation kills creativity.  If a child feels that his creations will inevitably be subject to judgments ("You forgot to put a door on that house") or comparisons ("Put more color in your drawings, like your brother does"), he will either stop producing altogether or will simply make what other people want him to make.   Uniqueness will be replaced by cliches.

3. Honor your child's individuality.  Accept her creations with an open mind, even if they seem flawed or incomplete.  Remember that the creative process is an uneven one, consisting of dead ends, misconceptions, errors and the occasional brilliant flash of insight.  By allowing the entire process to occur unimpeded by your prejudices, you can honor your child's creativity and make it that much easier for her to find the right way to express herself.

4. Don't force her to do something.  There are those who prefer to package creativity and market it like a new toy.  But creativity can't be pushed and prodded.  In fact, pressure can cause creativity to go into a permanent state of decline.  Your child may go through long periods of seeming stagnation only to burst through with renewed vitality.  Be patient!

5. Provide the resources they need.  You can't be creative in a vacuum: Children must be exposed to materials and experiences that trigger ideas and feelings.  But remember, it doesn't take much to spark a child's creativity--building blocks, a cardboard box, a puppet, paper and crayons are often much better than the latest superhero action figure or electronic doll in encouraging creativity.  Try the following simple-to-do activities at home:

  • Invent-a-Machine.  Give your child all boxes of different sizes, glue, scissors, variety of buttons, knobs, pipe cleaners, string and other household items.   Suggest he create his own machine or other construction (older kids may want to add battery operated bulbs and motors).
  • Pencil Talk.  Take a large sheet of shelf paper, some pencils, markers or crayons, and have a "conversation" with your child.  The catch: You can't talk; you have to draw what you want to say. This might even turn into an ongoing visual dialogue or a pictorial story lasting several days.  Ask everyone in the family to join in.
  • Messing-Around Center.  Set aside a special area of the house (a corner of your child's room is a good place) where can engage in unstructured creative activities.   Stock the area with art supplies, clay, science-kit materials, building blocks, percussion instruments, puppets, dress-up clothes.
  • Composer's Corner.  Has your child shown an interest in music?  You might buy or rent an inexpensive piano or even an electronic keyboard.  Set up a corner where she can create her own melodies.  How about recording her songs or giving a concert for the family?
  • Loonie Link-Ups.  Invite your child to cut out pictures from magazines, and then take five or six unrelated pictures and make up a story that links the pictures together in a continuous narrative.  Once you get things started, have your child tell his own stories.
  • Big Box Blow-Out.  Get a large cardboard box from an appliance store and let your child decide what he'd like it to be. A spaceship?  A house?  A puppet theater?  Let him paint or draw his own designs on it.
  • Record-O-Rama.   Provide your child with a tape recorder, camera or camcorder, and let her create her own "stories" from the sounds and sights she puts together.  Give her the opportunity (if she wishes) to present her production to the family.
  • World-Making.  Using figurines, miniature buildings, plants, and other small shapes and materials, your child can create little towns or worlds; these can be set in a sandbox, on a sheet of plywood, or in a quiet corner of a room.
  • Silly Squiggles.  Draw a simple abstract shape on a sheet of paper and ask your child to make up different things it could be (e.g., a straight line might be two ants carrying a piece of string, etc.); have your child create his own silly squiggles.
  • Kookie Questions.  Ask your child whimsical questions that evoke creative responses: What if everyone had an extra eye in the back of his head?  What if dogs could talk?  Invite her to create her own questions.
  • TV Tales.  Turn off a TV show (one that tells a story) ten minutes before it ends, and take turns making up your own endings to the plot (if you wish, you can record the remaining segment and compare your endings with those of the TV screenwriters).
  • Smudge Sightings.  Go outside and look at the clouds, and together search for "pictures" in the billowy shapes.  Other places to look for images of things: smudges on walls, scribbles on sheets of paper, the bark of trees.

For more information, read Thomas Armstrong, Awakening Your Child's Natural Genius (Putnam, 1991).  Order by calling 1-800-247-6553.  Visit Thomas Armstrong's website: