It makes sense to give kids lots of free time and space to let their creativity blossom. Right on.
There is altogether too much structure in kids’ lives these days: music classes, sports teams, play dates, school. We love academics and extra-curricular activities and somehow our success-driven, measurable-achievement-craving society tells us our kids will be left behind if they’re not enrolled in a the latest and greatest and busy doing/learning! Guilty!
But I want to talk for a minute about another overlooked aspect of teaching our kids to think outside the box, be creative, play independently. Admit it, sometimes the “go find something to do!” doesn’t work. They have a room full of toys, a backyard of endless possibilities, but they don’t see it. And instead they beg for screen time or follow you around proclaiming, “I’m bored!”
But…a good suggestion, a toy that invites, sometimes just a well-asked question can spark hours of play! I’m suggesting a little constraint can really boost creativity. We often think if left to ponder the vast opportunities there’s no telling what we’ll come up with! Maybe. We may also completely draw a blank! But put a few parameters in place and then the creative juices have to flow!
That’s why I love train track. I mean, I’m learning to love it. My guy is almost 4, so he can’t completely build a track by himself and always needs an adult to lay the groundwork. And we’ve entered the wonderful stage of little brother wanting badly to join in the fun and push engines along the track but lacking the dexterity to navigate the area without demolishing bridges and disrupting train lines. So, safe to say I have a love-hate relationship with train tracks. I won’t even mention the joy of tripping over boxcars and stepping on railroad crossing arms in the wee hours of the morning.
But I do know I love the idea behind a good toy train set. With enough curves and straights, bridges, tunnels, stations, switches, and crossings, the possibilities are endless. Really, I’m pretty sure I’ve never built the same track twice (and I’ve built A LOT of train tracks!). But as you lay down track, of course, the ends have to meet. Throw in a few switches and that can be a lot harder than you think (hence, why my 4-year-old can’t do it by himself yet). Talk about creativity and problem solving!
The best toys or activities allow for flexibility and possibility. That’s why they sometimes love the box the toy came in more than the toy itself. Possibility=excitement.
My husband recently assigned his engineering students a design problem asking them to prototype a solution using a kit he put together at the dollar store: Popsicle sticks, string, plastic cups, zip ties, pipe cleaners, paperclips, straws, etc. It reminds me of the iconic scene in Apollo 13 when the team is told: “We gotta find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.” Constraints make you have to get creative.
Practically, when our kids are bored, we need to resist the urge to prescribe an activity (handing them a screen, a coloring book, a game with rules to follow, even a specific toy) and also realize we can’t always depend on them being able to narrow down the endless possibilities of “go outside” or “play with your toys”. Instead, go for just enough constraints to challenge them. Suggest they build a city out of blocks or LEGO, put on a play, “cook” food for their stuffed animals, or draw a shape on a blank piece of paper and let them turn it into something.
Or throw together a kit from the dollar store and let them prototype away!