I’ll never forget my childhood friend, Ernie Coombs. We played together every morning at 10:30 sharp in the family room of the home where I grew up. Back then, I knew him as Mr. Dress-Up. I can still hear the sounds of his black Sharpie marker skating effortlessly across a crisp piece of coloured construction paper and his scissors victoriously maneuvering the stubborn ridges of an empty egg carton box. Just like magic, he could create anything. And all it took was some simple supplies and a great big imagination.

I wonder whether Canadian children’s entertainer Mr. Dress-Up really appreciated the impact that he made on his viewers. For me, while he inspired my still-to-this-day interest in crafting, he also showed himself as an example of how to be resourceful and intuitive, how to spring to a challenge with enthusiasm, how to have faith and hope in ideas, and how to accept responsibility and take initiative. He embodied creativity, both literally with the help of his tickle trunk filled with its cornucopia of costumes, and also figuratively because of the more profound lessons he taught about how to live life. Those lessons are still relevant and applicable to my own children. Though the world has evolved over my lifetime, and while I recognize that I have no idea what my children’s world will look like in the future, the one thing that I believe has not and will not change is that same force that kept Mr. Dress-Up on the air for almost three decades—the power of creativity.

My eldest daughter believes that she is creative because she is left-handed and was born in the year of the Rooster. At one time I too thought that creative ability was a function of personality or some inborn trait, not to be aspired to unless one was innately inclined towards the arts. But now when I see how amazingly imaginative four out of four of my children are, I realize that such odds can only be explained by the fact that creative potential exists in all of us.

What does this really mean? It means that we can all be artists, accepting life’s abstracts, improvising with flexibility, molding our skills and talents into different possibilities and dancing with independence to the beat of our own drummer. That’s creativity in a nutshell and it is a capacity that we all possess, one that is fueled by our imaginations and our passions. It is a call to action that encourages us to bring our unique gifts to fruition.

So how can we as parents keep our children from growing out of their potential for creativity?

Get Your Hands Dirty!
“Can I go into your craft cupboard?” I have my children ask each time so that I can account for the whereabouts of things like hot glue guns, indelible Sharpie markers, fabric paints, “baby choker”-sized beads and googly eyes. By the umpteenth time, I want to scream, “No!” By this point, there are dried-up blobs of glue on the kitchen table and the floor is covered with little bits of paper and sparkles that I know will be traipsed through the house and be impossible to clean. The room is a big mess with a capital “M.” The vacuum has become an honorary member of our family, making the rounds frequently during the day. My husband questions me, “Why do you encourage it? You make life harder for yourself than it needs to be.”

In many ways, nurturing creativity is a make-work endeavour. It is a high-maintenance affair that often requires supervision and guidance, particularly with younger children. Patience is required to keep up with curious minds and creative clean-up. But in other ways, placing value on creativity can ease some of the fatigue, overwhelm, and guilt that many of us experience as parents. Too often, we feel the pressure to crowd our children’s rooms with expensive single-purpose toys and their lives with too many extra-curricular activities, when what they really need is to bask in the light of daydreams and be showered by the rains of possibility. The conditions required for creativity—time, space, simplicity—can come as a welcome relief, changing the pace of our family lives in a surprisingly pleasant way.

Explore the Possibilities
I love to watch my children create. While my son painstakingly lines M&M candy buttons on gingerbread men with just enough icing to keep it from oozing out the sides, my eldest daughter sits at the piano, plunking away, persisting with a song by ear instead of playing the scales she so dreads. These are two small examples but they speak volumes about my children’s personalities, allowing me to better support their strengths as well as help them to overcome their challenges. I could not gain this same clarity of insight by watching my children sitting in front of a screen. They would all look exactly alike.

When we fill our homes with opportunities to engage the creative process and when we then take the time to sit back as careful observers, we can learn a lot about our children. How do they learn? Where do their talents lie? What inspires them? By using creativity to hone our intuitions and to see our children more fully, we place ourselves in a better position to help them discern their passions and bring their gifts and talents to fruition. The blueprints of their imaginations become more readable and the life that they are meant to create more possible.

Rummage Through Your World
My children continually challenge me to think creatively and look at life in a completely different way. We often ask “I wonder how we can make that?” Thank goodness for recycle bins! Empty paper towel rolls with ends covered in tin foil suddenly become light sabers, Cheerio boxes bent and painted red turn into barns, 4-litre plastic milk jugs covered in duct tape and gems become fashionable space aliens. As they say, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The enriching treasures of creativity are many—taking old ideas and expressing them as new ones, finding solutions to problems and seeing challenges as opportunities. How can we recognize these treasures in our everyday family lives and avoid discarding or disregarding them?

Here are some ideas for your treasure map to creativity:
1. Space. Make space for creativity in your schedule and your home. Teach your children how to spend time on their own. Institute unstructured/quiet time into their day, an unplugged hour where they remain in their bedrooms, playing on their own, listening to music, reading books or just daydreaming. Block off large chunks of time for your children to craft, build, colour or tinker, bearing in mind that creativity takes time and can’t be rushed. Don’t forget to factor in clean-up time. Sometimes having a space where mess is acceptable can make the chaos of creativity more tolerable.

2. Supplies. If you want your kids to play creatively, they need to have tools available. Some of the best tools are often household objects or sources found in nature: boxes, water, mud, sand and rocks are all great creative spurs. Craft boxes filled with buttons, beads, pipe cleaners, glue, scissors, fabric scraps, googly eyes and pompoms are another great example. Tried-and-true, store-bought toys that foster creativity include LEGO®, playdough (but this can easily be made at home) and dress-up costumes.

3. Simplicity. Free your family life from the stress of overdoing and the clutter of toys. Limit screen time. Spend time in the openness of nature. Ask “I wonder” questions.

4. Support. Surround your family with creative energy—be that where you live, with the people with whom you associate, or your lifestyle. As a parent, be a role model by following your own passions and nurturing your personal creativity. Support your children’s passions without micromanaging, correcting, perfecting or unreeling your own unrealized dreams.

Role-Play for Life
My son looks ahead with resolve wearing an aviator hat and oversized green-tinted goggles that make him look like a bug. He stands tilted forward at the waist, knees slightly bent, with his feet anchored to thin strips of white paper and empty paper towel rolls tucked under his armpits. “I’m a skier,” he informs me. Meanwhile, my two youngest lie with their bellies to the floor and their arms held tight at their sides, slithering along. “Hssss,” they murmur. Children love to role-play, imagining without bounds, that they can do anything, go anywhere and be anything. When I watch my children consumed in their world of make-believe, I am thankful that creativity is by my side as a parent. Knowing that they can believe themselves to be astronauts and Olympians gives me the faith and hope that they can also envision themselves as good people.

The lessons of creativity are far-reaching. Author Simon Parke suggests, “Our most crucial creative act is the atmosphere we create around us.” On a spiritual level, we can harness our children’s power of imagination by having them role-play questions such as: What does it really feel like to walk in that person’s shoes? What does generosity look like? How would a compassionate person act? This type of imagining doesn’t have to just be pretend; it can become reality.

With creativity, our children can succeed in an ever changing world and more importantly, they can create their best possible selves—and it all begins with tools as simple as a craft box, playdough and some dress-up clothes. So, in the words of Ernie Coombes, “Keep your crayons sharp, your sticky tape untangled, and always put the top back on your markers.”

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator, trained Virtues Project facilitator, and Salt Spring Island mum of four children. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” on Salt Spring Island airwaves at CFSI 107.9 FM.