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Helping Children Learn Through Creative Play and Experience

Helping Children Learn Through Creative Play and Experience

As parents we often have to figure out the balance between guiding our children and letting them discover things on their own. When our children start school for the first time and their days become more structured, we want to make sure that the learning and discovery continues at home and that may mean giving children more freedom to explore. Children are creative beings by nature, and it’s up to the adults in their life to help foster that creative potential.

Mara Lise Esposito, Education Director and co-owner of Not Just Art, a children’s music, art and science creative enrichment center for children through age 12, suggests some helpful pointers for parents to help children flourish through freedom when they are home.

  • Let children try to solve their own problems. Remember, accidents happen. How adults respond can determine whether a child keeps going with her efforts or feels too embarrassed or frightened to continue. Avoid leaping in or showing disapproval when something spills, begins to tip over, or simply doesn’t go the way you expected. Before swooping to the rescue, pause for a moment to allow children the opportunity to problem-solve on their own. If they do need adult assistance, gently guide and suggest.
  • Avoid guiding their creativity too specifically. When it comes to arts and crafts and other creative pursuits, anything you make for the child to copy may potentially limit his personal expression. Children will naturally attempt to duplicate your work rather than create their own. Instead, provide real-life objects for them to explore whenever possible. You can also observe what they do, then use materials in a similar way and at their level.
  • Explore and experiment. Children have a natural sense of curiosity and wonder about the world, but they don’t always need the adult answers.. Open-ended questions such as “what if…?” and “I wonder…?” support children to think about their world, make connections, and express ideas. 
  • Go with the flow. Encourage children to try out new ideas and make choices and decisions. Once the materials have been presented, let them explore the possibilities on their own. Your child may likely have a completely different notion of the art activity than you do, and that’s okay.
  • Practice playfulness. Remember that children take their cues from the adults around them. Sharing time with your child should be a positive experience for both of you, and a daily dose of silliness opens up imagination! Squash your own barefoot toes in the mud, sing out loud even if you think your voice is not the greatest, and so on. Relax, enjoy each other’s company, and let imagination flow!
  • The process is more important than the product.  Whether it be music, movement, art, science activities, cooking, or sports, emphasize the joy of doing, and whatever comes out of the fun will be a reflection and reminder of the experience. Focus on the joys of the journey more than the final outcome..

“Children construct their own knowledge,” Esposito says, “and caring adults can set the stage for that to happen. When children are given permission to do things for themselves in their own way, that’s when deep connections are made and real learning blossom.”

Children look to their parents for encouragement and guidance, so it’s also important to remember to keep the positivity going once a project is done. Esposito suggests these tips to help affirm your child:

  • Resist the temptation to “fix up” your child’s creation.  Take a loving hands-off approach instead. Remember that children’s art is about discovery and process, not polished results. In years to come, that lopsided little clay pot will be even more meaningful because of its slopes and lumps. Whenever possible, ask your child if/where he would like you to write his name. Or, if she is learning to form letters, encourage her to sign her own name. 
  • Practice giving genuine feedback. Simply saying “that’s pretty” does not let the child know that you have really seen their work. Instead, take a moment to soak it in, then say what you see! Use descriptive words to comment on colors (bright, pale, strong), shapes (round, pointy), lines (curvy, wiggly, jagged), texture (smooth, rough, fuzzy), or other elements that are in their creation. It will expand your child’s art vocabulary and let him know you have taken time to really observe his efforts.
  • Foster pride. Find a special place to display your child’s creations (a clothesline or magnetic strip in the  playroom or family room makes an easy “rotating gallery”). When the volume of artwork becomes overwhelming (and it will!) encourage her to select her favorites to save in an art portfolio or box.  Or, sort and digitize them to make a keepsake “art yearbook” or family calendar . Be sure to also select your favorites and share why they are special to you. 

Creative play is an essential part of kids’ development, and as most parents know first-hand, there’s no better feeling than watching your kid experience the joy and pride of learning something new on their own.


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