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The Problem-Solving Parent: Lighting the Creative Spark
By Eleanor Reynolds Children and Families Expert

Three-year-old Jack arrives at preschool. He’s feeling a little shy so he asks his Mom to stay for a few minutes. They sit down at a table and take out the markers.  Jack tries to draw a flower, but he can’t, so he asks his Mom to draw one. She shows him how to draw a simple flower: a little stem with swirls on top. After she leaves, Jack stays at the table, trying to duplicate his Mom’s simple drawing of a flower. It looks so easy, but for this young child, it might as well be a Rembrandt! Time after time, Jack tries and, to his mind, fails. He throws paper after paper into the trash and finally gives up and asks his teacher if he can take a blank piece of paper home so his Mom can make another flower. Innocently and with the best of intentions, Jack’s Mom has given her son a reason to doubt his own creative ability.

Creativity – It’s About the Process

Parents are their child’s best teachers, but adults sometimes try to teach the unteachable. The secret to creativity is that it is already present in the heart and mind of every child. In early childhood, the focus is on process, not product. In other words, smearing the paint, pressing the crayon, and gliding the marker across the paper is more pleasant than trying to make a realistic picture. Punching holes in the play dough with one’s fingers or pounding it with a mallet is more exciting than trying to form a recognizable object. Watching the glue pour from the bottle may be more fascinating than creating a collage, and making up the words to a song might be more inspiring than learning the words “correctly.” In the end, process is its own reward and to a young child, the product is merely a side effect. Can you light a creative spark in your child? Here are some suggestions.

1.       Teach Your Child to Appreciate the Arts. Creativity takes many forms, and the more you expose your child to the arts, the more inspired he will be. Many orchestras, dance companies, and theaters give live performances for children. Children’s museums offer hands-on experiences and community centers conduct classes in everything from pottery to ballet. In addition, help your child appreciate interesting architecture, cloud formations, trees and flowers, designs and textures of fabric, statues and monuments, even billboards and other advertisements. The world is filled with natural and man-made creativity.

2.       Make Room for the Artist. Create a place in your home for your child to experiment with messy art activities. It might be a corner of the kitchen, a laundry room, a porch, or any other room where you can protect the walls and floor and have nearby clean-up facilities. Stock the area with paints, markers, crayons, glue, scissors, paper, play dough, and other washable art materials. 

3.       Create Home-School Partnerships. If your child is in preschool, observe what the teacher values. Do the children make the artwork in the classroom? Is there an easel where a child at any time can express himself with paint? A high-quality preschool will have art materials available to the children at all times, not only during teacher-directed activities.

4.       Encourage Independence. Resist making models even when your child asks you to. Tell her, “I’m going to let you do your own work.” Some children become discouraged and give up when they can’t do as well as an adult. They may also assume there is only one “right” way to do it.  

5.       Provide Positive Feedback. Young children are like scientists – they learn by experimenting.  If you ask them to define a result, they feel pressured to give it a name and often make something up just to satisfy you. Instead of “What is it?” or the usual “That’s beautiful,” comment on what you see, such as “I see that you made long green strokes,” or “you added some dots over here and red swirls on the other side.” Other appropriate comments might be, “I see that you really enjoy punching on play dough,” or “You put a lot of energy into that dance,” or “I like when you make up your own words.”  

6.       Celebrate Your Child’s Accomplishments. Creativity is not the same as IQ and cannot be accurately measured. Refrain from comparing your child with another, helping your child to “do better,” or pushing your child to compete. Stand back and watch, with wonder, as the spark of your child’s creativity lights up the world.


Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers. For more information, visit her website at www.problemsolver.org. Reynolds is also the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach.