Summer is wrapping up, and as I write this my three kids are dressed up in tutus with hair bands twisted on their arms. Don’t be deceived, dear reader: their game has nothing to do with dancing or hair. They are in spy uniform, and the hair bands of different colors represent super powers. They are currently engaged in a battle against a LEGO army with invisibility cloaks. The battle is fierce. The three-year old has been deployed to sing songs to make the force shields draw back.
But lest you think my home is a magical world of fantasy play and children’s laughter all the time (I wish!), let me assure you that less than an hour ago I had three whining kids climbing on me and shouting “I’m BORED!” in my ear. In fact, “I’m bored” has been top of my most-hated-things-t0-hear list for some years now. This morning TimeHop reminded me of this gem from two years ago:
Daughter, whining and wheedling next to me: “I’m bored.”
Me: “Go nap. Read. Play. Make something. Dance. Sing. But if you think that you can lie here next to me moaning until I get up and entertain you, you’ve got another thing coming.”
Daughter: (pausing) “what’s the other thing?”
But I’m learning. Slowly. I’m learning that there are three basic things my kids need to encourage them to be more creative, and one thing they definitely don’t:
1. They need time
Kids need time to play. QUANTITY play time eventually leads to QUALITY creative play time. Every expert out there is warning us that kids shouldn’t be over scheduled… not just because they need rest, but also because they need time to play and be creative.
Here’s my crazy hypothesis: that kids don’t just need enough time to play, they need enough time to be bored and to have to come up with a plan. Necessity (for something—anything!—to do) is the mother of invention, is it not?
2. They need basic materials
I have only ever come up with one original parenting trick. Everything else, I copy from friends. This summer we stole a most brilliant idea from a friend: a creativity box. At first, it looked remarkably like a recycling box to me: a large plastic tub containing egg cartons, amazon boxes, bubble wrap, cotton balls, bendy straws, lids, and various bits of tissue paper and fabric cut offs. “But,” my friend whispered conspiratorially, “something new appears in the creativity box every morning. The kids can’t wait to see what new they can make today.” Just add tape, glue, and string and voila! Endless possibilities.
(For the record, googly eyes make a fantastic cheat addition to a creativity box. Also, a large cardboard box? There is nothing better. Transmogrifier? Duplicator? Spaceship? It is ALL THE THINGS.)
(Also: craft sticks, yarn, and if your kids are a little older, a hammer, wood, and some nails… A friend’s kid made a twigloo—an igloo constructed from sticks—this summer, and I thought it was the coolest thing EVER.
Here’s my next crazy hypothesis: toys fall into two basic categories. Lesser Toys are ones you can only use for one thing, in one way (candy land, I’m looking at YOU!). Lesser Toys get demoted to AWFUL toys if they have lights and sounds you can’t switch off. But then there are Greater Toys: those which you can use in any number of ways: LEGO and its younger brother DUPLO are the reigning Kings in the Land of Greater Toys, but blocks, paint, puppets, gears, connect-a-straws, balls, and a great many other things have multiple options.
3. They need permission to make a mess.
Let me tell you how I could keep my house fantastically neat all day: by letting Netflix play for 8 hours a day. They wouldn’t leave the couch. Not that I’ve tested that… but the odds are heavily in Netflix’s favor. By contrast, creativity is messy. There will be noise. It will be sticky. There will be art shrapnel on every surface and in every orifice. The chances of mud are alarmingly high.
It’s worth it. Really, it is. A messy house is a proof of life, right?
But here, gentle reader, is the one thing my kids do NOT need:
1. They don’t need a creativity prompt from a screen.
I don’t think we are alone in feeling that we live in a screen-vortex: the closer they get to a screen, the more they are drawn in. The more time they spend watching, the more they want to watch. One of my guru mama friends put her foot down a year ago and declared: NO MORE TV. A fortnight later she had this to say: “Well, it’s been two weeks without TV, and I think their imaginations are slowly growing back.”
We haven’t gone the “no screens” route (our system at the moment is 15 mins/day – and they can lose time for failing to complete required tasks, or earn extra minutes for additional chores), but since we’ve imposed a strict limit on screen time, they whine for it less, and they are playing so much more.
That’s it: time, basic materials, and permission to make a mess.