The research is clear: Creativity is critical for child development.
When children create, education expert and former elementary teacher MaryAnn Kohl argues in “Primary Art,” their bodies and minds are hard at work. Every time they pick up a paint brush, they train their fine motor skills. When they work from a prompt, they become better problem-solvers. As they count and sort their materials, they grasp organization and basic math. When they make mistakes, even, they learn to experiment and accept failure.
But kids don’t discover creativity in a vacuum. For better or worse, they closely model what they see their parents and other adult role models doing. When parents signal creativity isn’t important to them — often unintentionally, such as substituting chores for craft time — children follow their cue. When parents prioritize creativity, however, their children tend to as well.
Rekindle Your Creativity
Whether or not you consider yourself creative, know that creativity can be learned, just like any other skill. To build yours, and by extension, your child’s:
1. Understand the work of creativity. The concept that creativity is a learned skill is the centerpiece of big data entrepreneur Allen Gannett’s “The Creative Curve,” one of the best new books on creativity. Published this past June, “The Creative Curve” surveys dozens of creative professionals in fields ranging from technology to the culinary arts to discover commonalities in their creative processes. In doing so, Gannett shows that consumption, imitation, community, and iteration are the key steps underlying every creative work.
Gannett’s “The Creative Curve” may be the latest in a long line of books on creativity, but the classics have value for parents, too. For a better understanding of imaginative play, check out Edward de Bono’s 1970 book “Lateral Thinking.” In it, de Bono explains how lateral thinkers come up with creative solutions by seeing challenges in unique ways. Most importantly, he helps readers train their own imaginations to suggest innovative ideas both at work and at play.
2. Take a class for personal enrichment. Like all learned skills, creativity has an education component. When parents treat continuing education as a treat rather than a burden, they allow themselves to play with new ideas. But when they take classes out of a sense of obligation, stress tends to get in the way. A landmark 1992 study published in the journal Creativity and Innovation Management found “strong negative correlations” between subjects’ stress levels and creativity scores. In other words, stress kills creativity.
Parenthood may be busy, but low-stress learning is the lynchpin of creativity. At your next opportunity, enroll in an online or community college course. Don’t choose something explicitly tied to your career; let yourself learn something just for fun. By combining the joy of a new hobby with the structure of a course, you’ll hold yourself accountable while keeping stress from slowing your creative development. 3. Start a journal.
Unlike learning a new hobby, jotting down your thoughts might not sound like much of an exercise in creativity. But there’s a reason creativity experts recommend journaling: Describing our ideas, dreams, and ambitions in writing helps us generate new ideas around how to achieve them.
But journaling also promotes creativity in a range of indirect ways. Journaling can alleviate depression — which highly creative people are prone to — because it increases self-awareness, provides a sense of control over internal worries, promotes positive self talk, and highlights patterns in your behavior. Journaling is also a tactic for stress management because it helps you live in the moment, uncover sources of anxiety, track personal milestones, and put stressors in perspective.
4. Get outside. Like journaling, spending time in nature is capable of eliminating creativity-limiting stress. Outdoor time, however, also boosts creativity in more direct ways. When psychologists from the University of Utah and University of Kansas studied the subject, they found that spending time in nature improved participants’ scores on a Remote Association Test — a well-recognized test of creativity — by up to 50 percent.
How, exactly, might spending more time outside help parents better spot connections between ideas? University of Michigan researchers found that simply spending an hour in nature improved participants’ memory performance by 20 percent. Nature’s ability to improve information recall might also help participants bring to mind unexpected links between ideas, which is a crucial part of creative ideation.
5. Take a vacation. To get the most of nature’s creativity-boosting benefits, pair it with another tactic: taking time off work. Not only are vacations a great way to slough unwanted stress, but they can also improve productivity at work and at home. Creativity may be fun, but it’s also mental work. If you’re struggling with a “dry” creative well, your mind might be asking for an extended break.
Not all vacations are equally helpful for creativity, though. If you’re taking a vacation to reconnect with your creative self, prioritize cultural experiences and alone time. Traveling companions can make a trip more fun, but they can also distract you from the place you’re trying to explore. Get up early, go for a walk, and visit a coffee shop. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the locals. If you find that too intimidating, take a guided tour. You likely won’t be alone, but the tour guide will give you a low-stress glimpse of the local culture.
Creativity may be key for childhood development, but it’s important for healthy adult life, too. Before you can pass the creative spark on to your own children, you need to nurture it within yourself.