I found the secret to encourage creativity in my children
On the first page of one of my favourite picture books, a rabbit sows carrot seeds according to the directions on the packet. He fills the watering can and empties it carefully without flooding the soil. With that his work is done. Next day he fills and empties the watering can again. A week passes. Nothing happens, just bare earth. Another week passes. Still no shoots. The rabbit sings songs. He does a special dance. Will these carrots ever grow? How can there be no green shoots? Have they drunk enough? Too much? In the closing pages, just as the rabbit is giving up hope, green shoots break through. He smiles and laughs, realising that all the while he was wringing his hands above the ground, carrot seeds were silently sprouting beneath it.
Bringing up my children has felt a bit like this for me. At the beginning I planted a seed, no more than a hunch, and waited. It was a very small seed. Whenever we went to the park and the weather was fine I’d tuck a drawing pad and pencils into my bag. When we got to the playground I’d play with Alex and Emma. Then I’d sit cross-legged under a tree and disappear into a drawing. This spell may have only lasted 10 minutes. But they were an important 10 minutes. It was my way of doing something creative while being in the park with my children.
Admittedly, when Alex and Emma were very small I rarely got away with drawing in the park. Initially I had to be interested in whatever they were interested in for their curiosity to kick in. It was as if they needed reassurance from me that their interests really were interesting, and that they really were worth spending time with. This awareness gave me a perspective on our time together. Small things—a trip to the doctor, a train ride into town, planting broad beans—were adding up to their childhood. And this was one very big thing.
I could have spent the whole of my kids’ childhood on the go, panting to get home and collapse at the end of the day. But while I liked getting out, rarely was it for the whole day. Instead I took a deep breath and told myself that having chunks of time at home might be a spur to creativity. If Alex and Emma had things to do that absorbed them, this would be good for us all. I wouldn’t have to entertain them all the time, planning activities a week ahead, and they wouldn’t moan about the house asking me what to do next.
What if, instead of feeling trapped at home, that glum feminist fable, we found real opportunity there? What if being at home gave us a chance to do things that I hadn’t given myself imaginative permission to do for years? What if Alex and Emma grew up thinking that it was normal to do something creative after lunch? Wouldn’t this free us all up? We’d still need the world and other people, but we wouldn’t need reassurance from them that our day had been worthwhile. Being creative at home would be its own reward.
Paul and I were keen to pass on to our children the things we loved most—stories, drawing, playing, making things, music and, from me, a love of the outdoors. Our hope was that one day they would make some of these things theirs, and even if they didn’t, in the meantime we’d all enjoy their childhood.
Being creative at home didn’t happen overnight. Alex didn’t suddenly develop a passion for trains and rush off to the basement to build a baseboard and scenery. Emma didn’t sit down one afternoon, feet tucked under her in a chair and insist on finishing her monkey tapestry before supper. And neither of them sat down at the piano and strung together pieces for a good long time.
It all began in the kitchen, where Alex and Emma would hang around me as I drained rice or unpacked the dishwasher. Rather than looking beseechingly up with that “What shall I do now?” expression, Alex might pick up something and start playing with it. Seeing that I was busy he might wander off in search of something to make his game more interesting. Emma might start a drawing on the floor and then rip it up. If I had the presence of mind not to jump in and save her, she too might distract herself. Picking up her ripped drawing she might use the pieces to make a house for her pencil sharpener—every sharpener needs a home—with torn strips of paper and too much sticky tape.
Each time Emma and Alex solved the “What shall I do now?” question, each time they asked themselves rather than me what to do next, they grew a tiny bit in confidence. Absorbed in doing something, it was as if they came out the other side with a slightly clearer sense of who they were. A small release occurred that, over time, helped shape their personalities.
There was another thing I treasured about these times. Whenever they messed around in their rooms or dug up the back garden, they were digesting everything that happened to them in the busier parts of their lives, much like dreaming at night. If Paul and I taught them anything it’s that something good often comes from doing nothing.
When Alex was four and Emma was two we left London for Melbourne—the promised land of lower property prices and wide-open spaces. Having only had a balcony to call their own, Alex and Emma now had a garden to play in, along with weather that beckoned them into it. The fact that we had a basement was of no interest to them, populated as it was, in their minds, by ghosts and small scurrying creatures.
Two years later, with Alex looking for a challenge, the basement came into its own. First we cleared out the junk and painted the concrete floor bright red—Emma’s choice. Then Paul took them on multiple trips to the hardware store to buy a hammer, nails, screws, coping saw, vice, glue gun, paints, brushes and balsa wood. Once it became clear that making things from wood wasn’t a passing fad, the two of them attended woodwork classes, partly to give me a break during school holidays and partly to reassure their parents that they wouldn’t saw their fingers off.
Right from the start I wanted Alex and Emma to be able to mess around in the basement on their own. The whole idea would be spoiled if they had to be supervised all the time. Getting them to this point was, however, gradual. Initially Paul and I took it in turns to be down there with them, banging something of our own. A good year passed before Alex could be trusted to be in the basement without us, and in particular to sidestep conflict with Emma.
One fine day they were down there banging away on their own. There were a few bloody clean-ups in the bathroom and one frantic dash to the chemist, but thankfully no worse. There were countless fights and squabbles, with Emma often ending up in tears, but there were many more hours of happy noises wafting up through the floorboards. During long hot Melbourne summers this small basement room, with its high awkward windows and low beams, was a favourite workspace.
There was no mystery to getting Alex and Emma to be creative. While Paul and I encouraged them in various activities, neither of them was especially gifted. The real challenge was keeping them that way. What they needed to enjoy making things as small children was more straightforward than what they needed to keep them at it as they got older and distractions increased.
What then did they need? At the top of the list was time, open-ended time. They needed to be able to sink into the hours ahead without worrying about breaking off from what they were doing. They needed to feel relaxed and unhurried. They needed quality materials—the website SouleMama taught me this. Because making things is a special kind of work, it requires materials that are a joy to use. The right surroundings, warm and inviting, helped too. Once they were done, they needed to feel proud of what they’d made, that it had been worthwhile making it. All this started when Alex and Emma were small, as soon as we started reading to them. Making things was always a normal part of their day. Doing a drawing, playing with Lego, making a balsa wood aeroplane, this was just what they did after lunch, or whenever.
A year into our Melbourne life an English friend, a music teacher, came for dinner. I asked him for tips on getting Alex and Emma to practise the piano, which they’d just started learning. His answer was instant. “Make practising the piano as normal as cleaning your teeth. Make it a habit,” he said, and so we did. Even when they didn’t feel like practising I sat with Alex and Emma while they played for five minutes before supper. Until eventually all those five minutes added up to their wanting to play on their own.
There is one last thing, essential to this kind of creativity. Simply by spending a lot of time around each other, a sense of familiarity built up between the four of us. We might be in the house on a Sunday afternoon and two of us would be off doing our own thing. Or Paul might be out and the rest of us would be doing our own thing. This may not sound like much. Yet all these experiences, built up over time, made being creative a solid thing in our house. It was, still is, a shared pleasure.
I don’t want to romanticise. Like helping Alex and Emma learn the piano, which led me to take up knitting to curb my frustration sitting with them, being creative had its tricky moments. Take building models, which Alex once spent whole afternoons absorbed in. Many of his early kits ended up in the bin. He’d start with high hopes and, half an hour later, he’d be in tears, the kit broken or so badly glued that no-one could pretend it was salvageable. But the beauty of model kits is that this pain is quickly over. They are relatively inexpensive, which meant there was always another kit—come Christmas or birthday—waiting to be assembled.
As the years passed, whole months went by without Alex showing a glimmer of interest in the half-made models blanketing his desk. But then a long weekend would fall, the boredom after sickness set in or a homework deadline beckoned, and he would find his way back to a half-made model on his desk, at which point a special sort of quiet would descend over him.
Though it may sound sacrilegious, in sports-focused Australia, keeping the weekend for Alex and Emma to mess around at home seemed to me more important than attending sport. While I have nothing against sport—I love being active—even more I wanted Alex and Emma to have two whole days at the end of the week during which they weren’t under pressure to perform and were free to do their own thing.
There was nothing special about Alex, Emma or me. All I did was to pass on my love of making things to them, while making sure that they had enough time and materials to do something with it.
Tips to encourage creativity in children
- When your child shows a spark of creativity, foster it. Until they find their feet they will rely on your confidence in them to connect with this part of themselves. Look for a creative interest that might frame their world. It might be Lego or drawing or skateboarding or fantasy play.
- As long as it draws them out of themselves and into the world, it will have served its purpose. When they rip up a painting, refuse to practise music or moan about how boring the holidays are, try not to placate or give in to passive entertainment.
- Children starting off on their creative journey need open-ended time, quality materials, warm and inviting surroundings, encouragement (“That’s lovely” not “What’s that splodge?”), pride in their work and the background presence of someone they can rely on (or ignore).
- Use the time when your children are creatively absorbed to make something yourself. That way, you’ll be too absorbed to break off when they do, which will make them even more resourceful.
- Creativity often hides on the other side of boredom. When a child whines, “I don’t know what to dooo,” they are flagging their predicament as much as making a complaint. Instead of rescuing them, or being impatient, find a way of dodging their demand—which may then turn into something else.
- If you’d like your children to play a musical instrument, a couple of things may make starting easier. You can play an instrument yourself, however haltingly. Or you can sit with them while they practise, making encouraging noises. Even five minutes a day soon builds up.
Extracted, with permission, from A Slow Childhood, by Helen Hayward (Editia, 2017).
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