How to Support Your Child's Creativity

supporting creativity

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It started with one of those “How to Draw Animals” books that show you, step by step, how to sketch cute little cartoon animals (even if you have zero artistic ability). Someone gave my middle son—who was then about four years old—a copy for his birthday and he fell in love with it.

The only problem was that he didn’t actually want to draw the animals. He wanted me to draw them.

At first it was sweet; picking out animals and working on the steps together gave us something to bond over. I could tell he wanted to learn how to draw the animals himself but lacked the confidence, so I thought that if I showed him how easy it was, he would pick up the crayon one day and start drawing, too.

But no matter how many animals I drew, he was reluctant to try drawing one himself. And soon his requests got more complicated...and my son got more critical of my rudimentary skills.

The head is too big!

Can you make his claw more curvy?

That doesn’t look like a blue whale!

When he started asking me to draw elaborate dioramas involving velociraptors, komodo dragons, and giant squids, I knew I had a problem. If I didn’t find a way to help him grow more confident in his own artistic skills, I would be spending every day drawing whatever his whims dictated. Sure, that would get tiresome for me—but more importantly, it would do nothing for the burgeoning creativity within my son that I desperately wanted to nurture.

Why Creativity in Kids Is Important 

If you’ve ever watched a toddler pretend to bake a cake in the middle of a sandbox, then you already know that kids are born with an immense amount of creativity. Whether they’re building a fire station out of blocks, telling you a tall tale about their school day, or drawing a self-portrait using only shades of blue, kids use their innate creativity to both understand their own selves and engage with the world. 

A 2015 literature review performed by the National Endowment for the Arts suggests that children who participate in the creative arts (defined in the study as music activities, drama or theater, and visual arts and crafts) have stronger social and emotional skills than those who don’t. These benefits were seen across many socioeconomic lines and among children of different ages and abilities.

What kinds of social and emotional skills are we talking about? Problem-solving and critical thinking, for starters. A child presented with a box of art supplies and asked to make a flower vase will have to remember what he knows about flower vases, consider what materials he has, and then decide how to use the materials to make his vision come to life. What’s more, his first attempt may not work out, forcing him to re-evaluate and try a different method.

According to the education policy organization The Edvocate, “Art and creativity teach problem-solving, which is a critical skill for success in life. By engaging in artistic activities and study, children develop confidence in their abilities, and they learn how to innovate.”

In addition to learning how to effectively solve problems, kids who are allowed to be creative often have:

  • stronger fine motor skills;
  • higher levels of communication and self-expression;
  • more patience and resilience;
  • and a deeper sense of emotional intelligence.

In other words, when you hand your child a musical instrument or box of crayons, you aren’t just “keeping them busy” (or distracting them while you make dinner!). You’re encouraging them to strengthen the parts of their brain that regulate important social and emotional skills that could benefit them throughout their entire life.

Creativity at Different Ages 

Just like any other milestone, if you want to support your child it helps to know what they’re physically and mentally capable of doing at different stages of development. Creative development exists on a timeline, where children add new skills and build upon existing ones from the time they’re babies through adolescence.

For toddlers, being creative might include:

  • scribbling on paper with crayons or finger-painting;
  • participating in dramatic play, like taking care of a baby doll or playing doctor
  • moving their bodies to music or banging on musical instruments
  • noticing how their senses help them engage with the world

For preschoolers and elementary-aged kids, creativity could look like:

  • making up stories or embellishing on remembered dreams
  • re-enacting favorite scenes from movies, TV shows, or books
  • dressing up in costumes and pretending to be real or fictional characters
  • drawing more elaborate pictures that represent people, places, things, or scenarios

For older children and adolescents, being creative might include:

  • diving deep into preferred topics and honing more specialized skills
  • using what they love (like a sport or book series) as a jumping off point
  • making art for other people or alongside acquaintances with similar interests
  • taking more risks or being less afraid to make mistakes

How to Show Just the Right Amount of Support

Eventually, with a lot of patience and encouragement, I was able to get my son interested in drawing his own pictures. How?

  1. First, I told him that art didn’t have to be perfect and showed him famous pieces of abstract art.
  2. Then I talked to him about making “mistakes” and how “messing up” can sometimes lead to the best kinds of art.
  3. Finally, I reminded him over and over that practicing was the only way to get better at something. I even gave him a special drawing journal where he could practice and make mistakes without anyone else seeing.

Slowly but surely, my son began creating his own art and loving every minute spent at the table with crayons and paper in hand. Today, at six years old, he’s an unstoppable force, seeking out every opportunity to draw, paint, build, shape, mold, and color. As the mom of a budding artist, I’ve had to learn how to foster and support my son’s skills in ways that help his creativity flourish. Unfortunately, though, that’s not always as easy as it sounds.

Parents want their children to be successful in their endeavors, which can often lead to pushing them a bit too hard or interfering too closely. And without the right approach, you could wind up accidentally turning your child away from the thing he loves or, worse, stamping out his natural creativity entirely.

Whether you’re the parent of an-already creative child looking for ways to better support his skills from the sidelines or hoping to nurture a little more creativity out of a reluctant child, here’s a guide to bolstering the best parts of your child’s imagination—without them even knowing you’re there.

Create an Accessible Space

Imagine trying to cook without a kitchen...it would be pretty tough! Any child wanting to paint, draw, play an instrument, write a play, or perform any act of creativity needs a place to retreat to when inspiration strikes. Providing your child with a creativity-friendly space within your home is the first step toward inviting them to act on their creative impulses.

Now, we’re not necessarily talking about building a ballet studio in the basement or filling your garage with a drum set (you certainly can do those things, but they’re not possible for many families!). It doesn’t matter how big or small the space is, only that it’s there for your child when they want to use it—and it’s stocked with whatever they need. 

Setting up a creative space can be as simple as putting art supplies in a portable tupperware container or rolling cart so your mini Picasso can engage in impromptu painting sessions at the kitchen table. Keep a notebook and pencil cup on a desk in the family room for your budding writer. Clear a corner of the attic for your son to store a guitar amp, headphones, and folding chair for jam sessions. 

Basically, you want to send a message to your child that says you value their creativity and it’s welcome in your home anytime. Giving them a space they can access on their own terms will go a long way towards doing that.

Stand Back

Listen up, parents, this one is important: creativity doesn’t play well with helicopter parenting. Unless your child has asked you for help, do not insert yourself into whatever they’re working on. Your presence while they create should be quiet, non-intrusive, and non-judgmental. Let them know you’re there if they need you, but then allow them to come to you when they’re ready to share frustrations, ask advice, or celebrate accomplishments. Until then, your lips are sealed in the other room (or at least the doorway...no hovering!).

Admit When You Can’t Help

While you want to make yourself available to your child for assistance, there will reasonably be things you can’t help with because you don’t know the answers, don’t have the resources, or simply find it’s just not one of your strong suits. That’s okay! Thankfully, there are creative people everywhere, and there’s no shame in outsourcing some of your child’s artistic expression to one of the “experts.”

Sign them up for an art workshop or summer band camp, pay for a handful of music lessons if you can afford it, bring them to local theater auditions, or put together a playlist for them of YouTube tutorials on cake decorating. There’s no shortage of ways to seamlessly blend your parental support with expert instruction.

Ask Questions

If you’ve ever been proudly shown a drawing by a small child, then you know the awkwardness that comes with having to smile and praise something you just plain can’t identify. And trust us, there’s no faster way to deflate a child’s confidence than by complimenting his beautiful giraffe...when he was trying to draw his teacher.

Instead of faking it, invite your child to talk about his work by asking questions. What are you working on today? What were you thinking about when you painted this picture? How were you feeling when you wrote this story or song? Asking questions not only prevents you from unintentionally making judgments about your child’s work, it encourages them to share their creative process with you and, more importantly, shows them you respect that process.

Value Process Over product

Speaking of process, forget about all those cute little craft projects you’ve browsed on Pinterest or the finished paintings you’ve seen hanging in the hallways at your child’s school. Child development experts emphasize the importance of process over product, meaning that what your child creates is much less important than how he creates it.

If art is the expression of self, it makes sense that kids should be given the freedom to explore and create original expressions rather than copying someone else’s ideas. For example, a child given a craft template to follow for a homemade Mother’s Day gift will practice her skills of imitation, but won’t stretch her creative muscles in any meaningful way. 

Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist who extensively studied creativity and imagination in children, famously wrote about process versus product in his scholarly article “Imagination and Creativity in Childhood”: It must not be forgotten that the basic law of children’s creativity is that its value lies not in its results, not in the product of creation, but in the process itself. It is not important what children create, but that they do create, that they exercise and implement their creative imagination.

Instead of fretting that your child didn’t recreate a picture-perfect watercolor painting of a sunset, appreciate how they learned to blend blue and red to make purple, or how they used the other end of their paintbrush to create texture in wet paint.

Create Alongside Them

Aside from giving your child a designated creative space in your home, this is one of the best ways to show your child how important creativity is in your family. When you take time out of your busy life to paint a picture, write a song, sculpt a clay pot, or design a new piece of graphic art, you tell your child that using your imagination is a valuable and worthwhile endeavor—one that can and should be continued well into adulthood.

Find a Community

Creating something is often a very personal, solo endeavor, but that doesn’t mean that two (or more!) people can’t find ways to sync their imaginations up together...and that something totally cool can’t happen as a result. In addition to opportunities to learn new skills and perhaps even showcase their work, guiding your child toward a community of like-minded creatives will give them that many more people to rely on when they’re struggling to overcome a creative roadblock.

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Article Sources

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  1. Americans for the Arts. (2019). The Arts in Early Childhood: Social and Emotional Benefits of Arts Participation. [online].