As I was playing with my 6 month old, Avery, I had a revelation. Adults, on average, suck at playing. Why? We often have zero imagination. We have the tendency to become rigid thinkers who take out the instructions, read and follow them. We use things the way they were intended. We read books start to finish. We swing on the swings, climb up the ladder, go down the slide. We follow the rules. Herein lies the biggest challenge as parents and educators. Let me explain...
I recently purchased some new toys for Avery - a musical song book that sings nursery rhymes and a spiraled tower that balls slide down were among them. He loves both of these toys, which made me so happy! What I noticed was that he would play the way his 6 month old mind wanted to play, and as the adult, I subconsciously would try to correct him or guide him into playing the way it was intended to be used.
For example, while he loves to watch me put the 3 balls down the spiral slide, what he loves more is knocking the tower over to try to see the top and pushing it away to see the whole tower roll away. He likes to practice picking up the balls and putting them in his mouth. He even likes to try and stop the ball before it reaches the bottom! Without even thinking, I would pick the tower back up and presume putting the balls down the slide and he would presume to knock it back over. I would celebrate his skill achievements, but ultimately I was guiding the play.
With the book - he would just try to turn the pages back and forth, bang on the pages, press the buttons to hear the instrument sounds and see the lights flash, but not really listen to a song all the way through before interrupting it with another action or button press. While I know the value in hearing the songs for language development, I realized that by trying to force him to listen to it all the way through I was once again leading his interaction with this toy.
Now I KNOW that he is only 6 months old and that everything is about exploration and discovery right now! I am in no way shocked that he plays with the toys this way - in fact, I'm so glad to see him exploring the way he wants to! What shocked me was my own adult rigidity getting in the way. And we do this to kids... all. the. time. All through grade school. We squelch their creativity and imaginative play, often completely by accident! Like me, most adults don't even realize it's happening. We forget what it's like to think outside the box.
This is why play-based learning in Kindergarten programs is so important and successful. Kids lead the way! They explore, innovate and problem solve and follow their own instructions. They find solutions we never expected and find new uses for things we couldn't have fathomed. Kids are quite remarkable when we give them the space to be.
Here are some ways to help foster creativity in your children or students:
1) My favourite advice I was given about children's toys --> The more a toy does, the less your child does!! There are so many fancy toys out there that walk, talk and beep and flash colours and do your taxes. You'd be surprised to know that these crazy high-tech toys are actually in some sense, stifling creativity. It removes the need for imagination and thinking! Kids are more excited by simple toys. Think about how much imagination can be involved in play that happens with Duplo or building blocks. No lights, no sounds, just blocks that need to be put together into something else and the possibilities are ENDLESS. In fact, you might be surprised that kids often reach for the things that aren't toys at all! Ever seen a kid be more fascinated by the box a toy came in than the box itself? Some of my baby's favourite things to play with right now are wipes packages, Nalgene water bottles and burp cloths! See where their interests are and follow their lead!
2) Let them decide when the play ends. Often as adults, we feel this need to finish what we start (playing a board game until the end). For a child under 4, this will likely develop a negative association with the experience of that game. Instead, have them self-advocate that they would like to do something new and finish one more turn each, then call it a day! Don't forget to make cleaning up a part of the process.
3) Offer help and assistance *when* your child asks for it. Firstly, help them to self-advocate when they need help. Before jumping in, ask them to always try on their own once first. As the observers, we often assume when a child won't know what to do or can't do something so we jump in to their rescue. If we help by modeling and encouraging, and giving another opportunity to try, we can increase their independence! If they still can't get it, then of course, please assist as needed! Consistently giving them the chance to give it a try and encouraging making mistakes will help them bounce back and pivot when they need to. This helps build flexible thinking and problem solving skills.
4) Offer open-ended play choices. Toys or games that don't come with rigid rules or instructions. Duplo, Playdough, building blocks or K'nex are great examples. Costumes or dress up, dolls and figures or drama centers are great for this, too!
Take a step back. Try to challenge yourself to see if you are intervening and guiding when you don't need to be. Let's follow the leaders and see where they take us!