What if? or Whatever! | Encouraging creativity and curiosity in our children

Children discover a very important tool for survival when they play – especially when they engage in fantasy play. They learn how to imagine and talk about things not present, they learn how to pretend and speculate. This is such an important tool for life to learn as it enables those who master it to plan, project, conceptualise and to think creatively. When children engage in fantasy play they are involved in an age old process of story telling that enables them to make sense of a sometimes confusing and unpredictable world and find solutions to problems.

Clearly there are inspired entrepreneurs who are examples of creative visionaries such as Bill Gates, who once envisioned a computer in every home; or Steve Jobs’ vision for the series of iProducts; or, Richard Branson with his plan to send people into space.  And with the subsequent generation led by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergei Brin and Larry Page, certainly ‘what-if’ questions are being posed regularly (there’s even a management consultancy called WhatIf! in London).  Clearly these ‘what if’ conversations can and do exist, but in a culture of over-scheduled and hyper-parented children, many of whom are simply learning all they need to know to pass a test, are we instilling in them a sense of ‘what-if’curiosity, or are we simply giving them all the answers?

What is the magic trick to raising kids that are imaginative, creative and curious?  Here are some tips that we think can support you in making it happen:

Play – Allow your children time for unstructured and non –adult directed play.  Let them dig holes in the garden, plant seeds, make dens, allow their imaginations to run wild.  Limit the amount of time your child spends in front of a screen. Give them toys which don’t do all their thinking for them or direct how the game should develop – the simpler the better.

Ask – don’t tell Ask questions of your children that will require more than a yes or no answer.  Even in the madness of the morning routine, you can ask them what they need to do rather than nag them.  They can think for themselves, and will respond to questions more positively than to nagging. We get into the habit of repeating ourselves because we say our children don’t listen but it is the very repetition (nagging) that causes our children to tune us out.

Be interested in what they have to say.  Toddlers will go through the “why?’ stage.  Don’t shut down their questions.  They’re simply trying to make sense of their world. Sometimes you can respond to a question with a question of your own or a direction to where they can find the answer. “That’s a very good question – I wonder if you’d find the answer in your book about dinosaurs/on the internet?”

Encourage awareness of the wider world Talk to your children about things that happen in your life, within your community and around the world. Don’t just talk about world disasters but when they come up rather than leaving them feeling detached and helpless, encourage them to do something to help (e.g. donate some of their allowance to charities to support relief efforts for things like the Tsunami in Japan; or make up a relief package made up of things from their own toy collection and your kitchen cupboards). Encourage an attitude of solution orientedness. Point to solutions people have found such as discoveries in science and medicine. Inspire them with your enthusiasm for new inventions- many men particularly find it easy to be inspired about new gadgets!

Trial and Error Allow your children to fail. We love Michael Jordan’s quote “I have missed over 9000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games; been trusted with the game-winning shot 26 times – and missed.  I failed over and over and over and that is why I succeed”.  Practice won’t necessarily make perfect, but it will sure make things better.

Praise the qualities that will encourage a ‘what-if’ child.

-          Persistence When you see your child persevering at something (even if it’s your toddler trying to get a pea on a fork!) This should be easy to spot as small children get up time and time again when they fall over.

-          Effort When your child puts extra effort into riding a bike or skateboard, learning their spelling, practicing the piano or building a Lego tower.

-          Ingenuity Your children will come up with ideas … if you ask them.  Allow them to contribute to solutions to problems involving them and others in which they are not involved. Eg “does anyone have any ideas how Mummy can remember to take her phone when she goes out?”

-          Improvement Children of all ages are learning every day.  Make sure to notice those small improvements, whether it is a small child remembering to flush the toilet or a teenager remembering to text to say they’ll be late.  You will get more of what you pay attention to.

-          Curiosity Don’t denigrate the ‘why’ questions.  If you don’t know the answer, it’s great modeling to say, “you know what, I don’t know!  Let’s go find out”.  If you model curiosity for learning, it will rub off on your children.  And be grateful that Google does exist!

Play a ‘what-if’ game when your children ask for your help in solving a problem.  This is great for so many reasons including that your children start to see that you trust their ideas, and they learn to trust themselves to figure things out. It’s really simple! It’s nothing more than a conversation with each sentence beginning with ‘Yes, and what if …?’  If your child asks you if they can do something, say build a spaceship, the conversation could go something like this:

Child: What if we get that big empty box from the garage and build a rocket

Parent: Yes, and what if we get the Christmas lights from the attic and stick them to the box?

C: Yes, and what if we get out the paints and decorate our rocket?

P: Yes, and what if you get that jumpsuit Granny made for you and use it as a spacesuit?

C: Yes … and the ski goggles and my bike helmet.

P: What if you need to steer the rocket?

C: What if we get a plastic plate to be a steering wheel?

P: Yes, and you can’t leave your toys behind!  What if I build a toy box inside the rocket?

C: And I might get hungry.  It’s a long way to the moon.   What if I make a snack?

You get the idea.  It’s simply a way of opening up ideas and new possibilities rather than stifling creativity.

Focus on the process, not the result Sophie, age 8, is obsessed with creating a dance camp for kids when she’s 12.  Instead of shutting down the idea because she can’t be bothered, her mother is encouraging her to think about all the things she’ll need to do to get the camp going – whether it happens four years down the road or not.  At the same time her mum is praising her for things like creativity, contribution, fun, sharing and collaboration.

For a younger child carrying their own cup but spilling quite a bit, try hard not to take over and do it for them. Instead say something like “You are trying really hard to carry your cup over to the table without spilling it. I watched you walking really slowly and I see that you have discovered that if you keep your eye on it and look up occasionally you spill less and still don’t bump into anything. You are figuring it out all by yourself. There’s a cloth for wiping up on the kitchen bench.”

No idea is wrong Encourage healthy dialogue about ideas within your home.  Discussing an idea will teach your child how to take it to fruition.  It will also help them separate the good from not-so-good ideas!

Create an ideas forum – having regular family meetings is a good idea for many reasons including providing a forum for discussing ideas, finding solutions.

Probably now, more than ever, our children need to be curious, innovative, and have the skills to take something that starts as an idea and take it to fruition.  We once heard someone say that today’s children need to learn skills for careers that don’t currently exist. What do you think Mark Zuckerberg responded when he was a young boy when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up? The whole idea of social media didn’t exist. It is a completely new and innovative industry. He clearly grew up with an innovative and entrepreneurial flair.

Perhaps many of our own children possess the same ability.  As one of the founders of The Blue School in New York says in the film ‘Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture’, “kids come to the table with this creativity and this love of learning.  Let’s just not take it out of them”.

It’s hugely exciting to think about the possibilities that will arise from raising ‘what-if’ children rather than raising kids that are waiting to be told what to do all the time. By encouraging ‘what-if’ conversations, we are more likely to raise children who can imagine, pretend, conceptualise, plan and solve problems. This will help them not just make sense of their world, but redefine it.

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