When we talk about creativity in young children we are not talking about a measureable quantity of something. We can only talk about quality and potential: quality of imagination, spontaneity, vocabulary, and laughter; potential for enjoyment, understanding, discovery and sound judgment. We tend to think these are things inherent in childhood and that we lose this sense of fun somewhere along the road to adulthood. This is not always true from either aspect. Not all children are able to get the same gleefull enjoyment from anything or nothing; and not all adults have lost that childlike ability to see past, inside and underneath things that we admire in artists, writers, clowns and other disreputable people. Where then does the difference begin?
Experts believe it begins in infancy, in the games we all play with babies: peekaboo and funny faces and sound repetition. The baby learns to value this kind of interaction because we, the most important people in his or her world obviously value it so highly. We smile and coo and beam and most important of all we keep coming back for more. The seeds of self-esteem and enjoyment of life we sow in the young mind reap benefits long into adulthood.
The qualities of intelligence, wit, creativity, originality and inventiveness are ideally fostered by this one on one interaction in infancy, but as the child grows, variety of experience becomes more important. Nevertheless, parents remain the most important persons in the child's quest for knowledge and its uses. We can help our children make the most of their early years; not by pushing them into rigid early learning programs but by spending time with them: Time enriched by humor, spontaneity, intelligence and love.
Following are some examples of ways to spend time with children, having fun while encouraging creativity and a sense of humor. The first five suggestions are all ideally suited for filling in the time normally spent waiting, walking or driving: waiting for the bus to come, waiting at the dentist's office, walking to the subway, standing in the checkout line, stuck in a traffic jam.
1. Why the Bus is Late: This game can be played on the spur of the moment while waiting for the bus or subway to arrive. You begin the game by suggesting a reason for the driver's lateness; perhaps the bus had a flat tire; perhaps the driver and his bus have been kidnapped by aliens from another universe and are at this very moment speeding on a mission of mercy to a foreign planet. The amount of detail and the nature of the story should be dependant on the maturity of your child and the types of hypothetical situations he can understand. The tale grows with both of you taking turns adding details, the more absurd the better. This type of rudimentary storytelling is a good exercise for both of you. The insights gained into your child's personality and budding sense of humor are well worth the time spent in this type of game. (It might even seem to make the bus come faster).
2. Naming the cat (or dog etc.): This game has many variations, and can be played almost anywhere. You begin by spotting a cat or dog in a yard or along the street, suggesting an appropriate (or deliberately inappropriate) name for the animal. It could be a descriptive name like wetfoot, porchsitter, birdwatcher etc. Other possibilities include ordinary names like Clyde, Norman or Aunt Emma; these strike certain children as funny particularly if names of people the child knows are used. Children around the ages of three and four are often amused by the inappropriate application of common nouns like sky or garbage can to an animal. This is word play pure and simple. The child enjoys the sound of the words and delights in his sense of the absurd. A slightly older child can be introduced to phonics by this simple game. The cat could be named all the names one can think of beginning with the letter B, for instance, Benjamin, Bradley, Bigfoot etc.
3. Ways we know that it's winter (or spring etc): There are so many things in our everyday world that we take for granted. This game forces us to take a closer look at our surroundings. In winter, for example, people drive with their car windows rolled up, wrap themselves tightly in winter clothing. Very young children might notice only these obvious examples, but an older child or one who's played this game before will soon notice the lack of birds, the smoke from chimneys, exhaust from tailpipes, the speed with which people run their errands so as to get back to the warmth of their houses. The object is to take turns naming as many details as you can. Young children will like to repeat this game again and again. They like taking turns, they like parading their knowledge, they like repetition. Most of all they benefit from the interaction with an adult who can lead them to use their eyes and their minds together to explore their environment.
4. Naming things of a kind: This game has uncountable variations. You could begin with something as simple as naming yellow things or wooden things or teeny-tiny things. Even here there are variations. There are things which are always yellow (lemons, buttercups etc.). There are things which happen to be yellow (raincoats, housepaint etc.). The game can be played in the here and now or it can be played from memory. While waiting in the doctor's office you and your child could take turns naming things at home which are yellow (the teapot or a favorite sweater). This can have uncountable variations, and need never be the same twice.
5. On my next vacation...: Dreaming of the future is something we all like to do. Children especially like to imagine themselves in strange places doing strange things. You could begin this game with plans that could come true such as a visit to the seashore or a trip to a foreign city to visit relatives. As these ideas get used up and discussed you could begin inserting ever more farfetched ideas: a visit to the penguins at the south pole or a visit with a prehistoric family. This game stretches the imagination in two ways. Your child tries to imagine herself in the situations you suggest and then tries to top your effort with one of her own. Her ideas should be applauded and amplified by suggestions about possible equipment needs, imaginary dangers to be met and overcome or the possibilities for finding food and shelter (and excitement).
So far we have looked at activities especially suitable for time normally wasted waiting. Activities suitable for play at home are even more numerous. Some are verbal and require no equipment or preparation. Others will require some minimal outlay in time and effort, but all will enrich both you and your child. Opportunities for sharing laughter and companionship abound in everyday situations.
6. Come cook with me: Time spent making supper can be shared if you provide plastic duplicates of common kitchen utensils along with a brief explanation and/or demonstration of their use. Your child will be increasing his vocabulary, becoming acquainted with simple kitchen techniques, and developing an idea of what's involved in the maintenance of the family routines.
7. Once upon a time...: Meal preparation time is also a good time to talk about and reinforce family traditions relating to holidays and festive meals. Recounting familiar stories about previous Christmas dinners (remember the time Uncle Harry fell asleep at the table) or family reunion picnics (remember the time cousin Clara knocked a wasps' nest out of the tree) serve to familiarize young children with the history and lore of the past, increase their feeling of continuity, and give them an awareness of their special place in the family. After a few retellings of a favorite story, your child will likely begin telling the story with amplifications and interpretations of his own.
8. Splish, splash: Pre dinner time is a good time for water play if you can work around your child a little bit. Set the child up on a chair in front of the sink, perhaps with an apron on. Run a small stream of warm water from the tap and provide a few implements such as bowls, spoons, seive, sponge, funnel, measuring cups etc. This is a good time for increasing your child's vocabulary and familiarity with concepts such as full and empty and gradations in between. Your child's time will be well spent even if it's only a social hour. Your nearness and attention to questions and answers is of immense value.
9. abcdefg...: Beginning word play can also be arranged in the kitchen. Magnetic letters for the refrigerator are widely available. An old Scrabble game can be brought into service or old fashioned pencil and paper can be used to introduce children to word games. Even very young children might be able to arrange a scrambled alphabet in the correct order. A child who has some basic knowledge of phonics can have fun making lists of word families: pig, big, dig, fig, rig etc. could be shown as examples. Most children learn very early to spell their own and other family members' names.
10. Squish, squash: Modelling with play dough is a time-honored occupation for children. The following is the best recipe for home made play dough I have ever come across. It stays soft and pliable for months if properly stored in the refrigerator.
1 cup flour
Combine ingredients in order given. Cook and stir over low heat until mixture leaves the sides of the pot and forms a ball (it will be quite a mess before this stage, so persevere). Cook one or two minutes more. Remove from pot and knead several minutes to form a smooth, elastic ball. Cool and store in airtight container in refrigerator.
Very small children can learn to make balls of different sizes to line up or count, and sausage shapes to slice with a plastic knife. They can pat it out to cut with cookie cutters or push it through a garlic press. It is soft enough for the smallest children to work easily and won't make anyone sick if they give it a lick or two.
11. Sing a little song: Singing is a valuable pastime when the hands are occupied. After your child has learned a few simple songs you can have great fun making up your own verses to familiar songs. "She'll be coming 'round the mountain when she comes" lends itself especially well to this, because of its simple melody and its repetitive nature. "She'll be driving our new car when she comes" and "She'll be eating all our food when she comes" and other such nonsense are irresistible to children and you will soon find your child suggesting ever more ludicrous sentences for you to sing.
12. Scissors and paste: Every household has plenty of junk mail and/or old greeting cards. These can be used by children for exercise in cutting and pasting. The very young should be encouraged to cut and paste just for it's own sake, learning how to handle scissors, feeling the stickiness of the paste and enjoying the mess. An older child might be guided toward creating collages, scrap books, gift tags, christmas ornaments or things you and I have never thought of. Artwork should be signed by the young artist and prominently displayed. It is worth sitting and playing alongside your child occassionally to reinforce the idea that art is a worthwhile activity and not just "childsplay."
13. Window art: A dining area or kitchen window could be decorated with seasonal motifs changed every two or three months and representing approaching holidays or heralding changes in the weather. The designs can be simple: flowers in the spring, snowflakes in the winter, or they can be as intricate as you and your child have time and talent for.
14. Rub a dub dub: Crayon and pencil rubbing is a good project for you and your child to share. Leaves, string, coins, corrugated cardboard, raised lettering on plastic lids and encyclopedias with embossed covers are all good places to begin. A walk around the house using your eyes and your hands will yield dozens more. Discussion can include concepts like hard and soft, light and dark, high and low. You can also talk about different textures and colors. Crayon rubbings can be taken outdoors as well. Sidewalk symbols, manhole covers, brick, weathered wood, and leaves are all worth trying.
15. Do you see what I see?: You can show your child how to make pictures out of almost anything. Letters of the alphabet, numbers, fingerprints, circles and triangles can be used as the basis for small line drawings. With a little practice and encouragement children will become quite imaginative at this.
16. Rain or Shine?: A weather calendar is a good project for the new year. While you might have to help read the thermometer and write the temperature in the appropriate square, your child will soon learn to draw a little symbol depicting different types of weather.
17. Where in the world?: A large map of the world or a globe can both be used to play geography games. Even a very young child can learn to find her own country, an older one can distinguish continents, oceans and mountain ranges. A child that can read can have fun testing your knowledge of countries, rivers or capital cities.
The final three suggestions are especially designed to increase your child's sense of family and belonging. They foster a picture of the family as a dynamic and growing thing, and your child will begin to sense what it means to be a family; to be a part of an ongoing ritual which has definite links with the past and meaning for the future. Your family heritage is a very personal gift from one generation to the next.
18. Family mail: Cover with wrapping paper or paint several small boxes suitable for attaching to bedroom doors as family mail boxes. Small children love writing little notes or drawing small pictures and secreting them away for Mom or Dad or sibling to discover. Be sure to make a big fuss and by all means answer the notes with little messages or pictures of your own. Your child will be enthralled by this new method of communication.
19. Holiday calendar: Buy or make a calendar with large squares for each day. Help your child fill in family birthdays, holidays, vacations etc. At bedtime spend a few minutes jotting down a phrase or two about the days happenings in the appropriate square. Events like a doctor's appointment, a friend's party, a visit to the beach, a concert at school or even the mishap the family puppy had in the new car are all worth remembering. At the end of the year your child will have a sort of diary, a permanent record of the year's big and small events.
20. Family newspaper: This is the only project that really requires much in the way of committment. Every family tree has branches that are interested in each other but do not really keep in touch except perhaps at Christmastime. A family newspaper is the perfect answer. A month or two in advance solicit news items and announcements from all branches of the family. Include grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Interesting stories might include graduations, births, vacations, milestones of any kind. Small children could contribute pictures or little stories. Old family recipes, puzzles, and a travel item could fill more pages. The tasks of photocopying, stapling and mailing could be completed by older children. These newspapers will be treasured by your children as they grow and can be carefully stored away with the school pictures and prized schoolwork.
In all of these games and activities attention should be paid to the child's mood. Nothing is gained by pushing a child who is tired or has lost interest. If your overtures to a particular game are not met with enthusiasm try another game or wait for a better time. Sometimes it helps to play the game to yourself but within the child's hearing. Some children will listen for a while before venturing to participate. These are spontaneous games, meant to be played or not played as whim suggests. The longer you play them the more your own and your child's creativity will take hold and the games and activities will grow and change.
Variations on all these games are almost limitless and should be explored with enthusiasm. They are purposely not competitive in nature, therefore producing no winners or losers. They are played for enjoyment--yours and your child's. Both of you will be rewarded by an increased closeness; many things can be discussed in the context of a game which would otherwise present problems. You will begin to see the ordinary world as extraordinary; the humour your child finds in everyday surroundings and common events will open your eyes to new (or perhaps old) ways of seeing things. And perhaps most important of all, your child's natural creativity will be reinforced, her sense of humour developed, and her self-image expanded by the camraderie the two of you will share. These are gifts our children cannot do without.
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