I've always been labeled as a creative person, from when I was very little. And while I think some of that is just who I am, I believe a lot of my creative expression is thanks to the experiences and play of my childhood. I was the child who made a restaurant of food from paper scraps and glue, then roped my younger siblings into paying customers. We would spend afternoons building life-size forts from the couch cushions, “camping” out in the yard, putting on skits, hunting for crayfish in the stream, and dressing up as superheros and astronauts. No one told me to do these things, as my brothers and I were often left alone, supervised from a distance. Yes, we made a huge mess and sometimes got into trouble. But it was this exact cocktail of open-ended free time inspired by stories, school, or the world around us that allowed for big creative play.
Creative play begins showing up around age 4, as children become fascinated with roles, cultural customs, and their peers. Around age 6, creative play really takes off, as children this age now have the knowledge, skills, and the ability to plan more involved play. The biggest factors in encouraging creative play in children are the tools available to them and the adult's ability to let it happen. Follow these five steps below, stand back, and watch the magic unfold.
Five Steps to Encourage Creative Play
Stop hovering and get out of the way.
Providing a script, play-by-play, or constant interruptions undermines your child’s ability to focus and problem solve independently. Only interject when there is a serious safety concern, or when asked. If you are playing with your child, be sure to let her lead the storyline and direct the play.
Let your child get dirty
Real play is messy. If your children are always concerned about keeping clean and tidy (or you enforce this), it limits their play, and in turn what they learn from it. Limit the mess by showing your children how to clean up, and having a space to leave muddy shoes, grass-stained clothing, and found treasures.
Inspire with stories, trips, and experiences.
Great experiences inspire great play. Look for real, hands-on activities that your child can actively participate in. Choose experiences that have meaning behind them ( a trip to the science center vs an indoor playground.) Find inspiring books or stories to share with your children. Your library is a great place to start!
Allow space and time.
Real play happens when children are not engaged in a guided activity. Try to keep a balance between scheduled activities and free time. Boredom is the gateway to creativity! Also, a tidy playspace allows for more spontaneous creative play. Make sure everything has a place to go back to (hooks, shelves, boxes, etc) and establish expectations for when everything is put away.
Provide tools, not toys
Many toys are designed to entertain, or take advantage of a young child’s attractions to light, color, sound, and motion. Creative play requires brain space to solve a problem or follow a thought using the tools at hand. The simpler the toy, the more creative options exist. Check out the infographic below for some tools for creative play:
How are you encouraging your children to be creative in their play? Take a photo to share over on our facebook page or offer your suggestions to the community!
Leanne Gray, M.Ed is the owner of The Prepared Environment, which supports families in creating an ideal environment for their children at home. She has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained. You can always contact her for personalized support and answers to your questions. .