Heroes of Liberty Blog

Children Need Creative Play. Here's How to Encourage It

Children Need Creative Play. Here's How to Encourage It
Children Need Creative Play. Here's How to Encourage It
Did you know that, on average, American kids take 112 standardized tests by the time they reach 12th grade? That means they spend 25 hours being tested per year. No wonder anxiety in our children has reached an all time high. 

What started out as a good way to ensure that no child was overlooked has turned school into a drone factory. Instead of learning vital life skills like critical thinking and problem solving, children are forced to learn facts and figures to order, many of which they’ll have forgotten by the time the next test rolls around. Not only is that boring, it means that children aren’t learning to think for themselves. That’s a problem if you want to raise independent thinkers who are self-sufficient in adult life. 

Countering this tick-box approach to schooling needn’t be difficult, however. “Children are naturally curious and imaginative,” says Helen Hadani from the Center for Childhood Creativity in Sausalito. “Most don’t need prodding to engage in pretend play, which encourages empathy, cooperation, creativity and divergent thinking (the ability to envision multiple outcomes and solutions).” 

Nonetheless, it’s worth making the effort to build time for creativity into your family routine. Encouraging your children to be creative gives them the opportunity to think outside the box and puzzle things out for themselves. And the best part of it? You don’t need to set any tests to be sure they’re gaining the benefits. 

Here are three ways you can encourage your children to be more creative at home.

1. Encourage Open Ended Play. 

Open-ended play is the kind where there is no particular goal in mind – there is no ‘object of the game’, no stages to complete, no ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’, and no end point. It’s the difference between a model construction kit, where the purpose is to create the model shown on the box, and Lego, where you can make anything at all, and include the box in the design if you want.

Make a wide range of materials available for kids to experiment with. Some examples include: 

  • arts supplies: paints and paper, modeling clay, collage materials. 
  • Cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, and glue. 
  • Cloth and other scraps of fabric or thread. 
  • Lego, and other open-ended design toys 
  • driftwood, leaves, shells, and other natural items (encourage children to find their own!)
  • technologies such as the Raspberry Pi, which allows children to experiment and build their own programs. 

 Some children may need support in getting started, as the endless possibilities can be overwhelming. Take the time to help them find inspiration by looking at art that other people have made.

A young girl plays with a bucket and spade on a sandy beach

2. Leave Room for Error

Children need to learn that it’s ok to mess up, make mistakes and start again. Creative play is a great way to teach that lesson, because creativity inherently involves sketching out ideas and refining them, dropping what isn’t working to make room for what is. 

When encouraging your children to engage in open ended play, emphasize that the purpose is experimentation, not a finished product. It’s ok for kids to try new things out, break the model down, and start again, taking as long as they like before they’re finished with it — or even never finishing it at all. 

For many parents, there is a strong temptation to jump in and show children the ‘right’ way to do something — how to mold clay in the right way to form a pot, how to make the right brush strokes to paint a picture, how to assemble Legos into the perfect Millennium Falcon model — or even to take over and do it for them. Resist that temptation! 

Of course children will need some guidance on how to use certain tools to get the results they want, but the purpose of creative play is to practice and hone skills. As anyone who has ever learned to play an instrument or bake a cake or even drive a car knows, at the start, you get it wrong more often than you get it right. 

Not only are mistakes and dead-ends part of the learning process, sometimes they can even be inspirational, taking a creating project in a whole new, better direction. So let them make those mistakes.

A toddler plays outdoors with twigs on a log in winter.

3. Prioritize Outdoor Play

Too often, outdoor play is seen as a distraction from more important activities, or merely as a box to be ticked to maintain physical health. In fact, numerous studies have shown that children benefit from being able to play outdoors all year round in a whole host of ways. 

The evidence shows that children who play outdoors regularly have better mental health, and are better able to regulate their emotions. Outdoor play also develops a set of skills known as ‘executive functioning’, which include the ability to plan, working memory, focussed attention and the ability to think flexibly.  

“Some kids don't want to be organized all the time. They want to let their imaginations run; they want to see where a stream of water takes them,” says Richard Loev, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. But Loev points out that outdoor play offers so much more than merely a change of scene. 

“Nature — the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful — offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity.”

Outdoor play gives children a chance to connect with the realities of life. The great outdoors is a place where children can have adventures, be courageous, get lost, and find themselves again. In short, it’s an essential environment for young people who are learning how to be well-rounded adults.

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