The Wonderful World of Creative Play

Embracing creativity and development in our children

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I heard a throat clear, “Ahem.”
When I glanced up, I was surrounded.

An anchor held a mic to my face, a videographer wearing a headset held a videocamera on me. To my right, an adorable boom lady was wearing a Cinderella dress and held the boom mic over my head. The boom was actually a broomstick with a yellow plastic otoscope taped to the end.

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“Excuse me,” the ten-year-old anchor began again, holding a plastic tool in my face, “What would you change about this country if you could?”

Obviously, the election has caught even my children’s eyes. I’m ok with that. I’m glad to see them thinking about what WE as people can do to change the world we live in.

But I wasn’t expecting an interview here on my couch.

I think I replied along the lines of us needing to make choices based on a solid moral foundation, as that affects everything we do and say.

The short interview ended with giggles, and some half embarrassed expressions. They did a few retakes and got some technical difficulties ironed out, and we all ended up laughing.

Their daddy is taking a public speaking class, and he’s been assigning the two oldest children brief research assignments on Bible characters. Once a week, they give speeches with three points they’ve discovered about their assigned character. I’ve been fascinated to see their daddy’s hand motions and even opening sentences used in their reports. Children mimic what they see.

While traditional education is very important, we should never overlook the value of creativity and ingenuity just waiting to be unleashed in our children.

So much is hidden in the heart and mind of a child.
So much raw creativity is just waiting to be discovered.

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Creative play is woven deeply into my own childhood memories.

I barrel raced my stick horse around upturned 5-gallon buckets, after absorbing every detail of the real thing at our local rodeo. As I rounded those plastic buckets, in my mind I could feel the warmth of the horse under my legs. I could see the sawdust flying behind me as my horse and I set a new record time…

I was crazy enough to beg for a birthday present washboard and after scrubbing my clothes clean in a tub of water, I draped the dripping garments over the fence to dry in the sun. I could taste Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, and I loved every minute of it.

Almost nothing made me happier than to spend my hard earned pennies on a pad of receipts at the store for us to scribble our “sales” or “deposits” down on. We played bank and rolled a thermos up a board with our money and deposit slip in it. One fateful bank day, my brother obtained a scar on the bridge of his nose when the board that we were using slipped and he gashed his forehead on the edge of the table. We got him cleaned up and bandaged, and always winked at his scar and the inside story behind it.

Creative play may not always be Fisher Price safe,
but in my book, it’s almost always better.

On our property now, my children have over three acres of woods and yard that they can roam, climb trees or build forts on. But even my own childhood in a typical city neighborhood was not cramped by a smaller yard.

My brother Isaac and I shinnied up the trees, hunted out every snake and lizard with my mom’s salad tongs till they went extinct. We peered into the neglected fountain hidden the bushes, watching mesmerized as mosquito larvae hatched and swam upwards to the surface, only to dive down again. We wore cowboy hats and crawled through the cannas, whispering lest the pursuing enemy might find us. We got muddy and messy, and I’m sure the landscaping suffered from our energetic play. But the memories and practical skills we gained in that Houston residential neighborhood were worth every muddy moment.

We buy very few toys in our house, ‘cause real life things are almost always better. If we do buy toys, they are preparation for the real thing and rarely plastic. Sticks and vines, moss and stones make a far better fort in the woods than any plastic playhouse.

Did you know moss makes perfect carpet?
Did you know acorn caps are adorable little cups?
Did you know you can strip bark of green saplings and weave baskets or braid ropes?
We didn’t read about these in textbooks, we discovered them on our own.

Embracing creativity in our children means embracing the process, the chalk dust, and the constant chaos involved. I have to take deep breaths often and remind myself that this is all vital preparation for life. I want my children to dream and then pursue those dreams.

A blanket fort spanning the entire bedroom? Why not?

Because I’m raising future adults, which means letting them grow their roots deep and stretch their arms wide today.

We talk about life, and risks. About the danger of fire, and falling out of trees, and sharp blades. But that doesn’t mean our kids will avoid all those dangers. It doesn’t mean they won’t get an axe for a birthday present, just because they could get hurt.

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Allowing them to learn means I need to let my children to try new things, to take risks, to venture on new skills. 

Sometimes they fall out of the tree, sometimes they cut themselves while carving. Sometimes the coffee table gets permanent marker lines when washable markers were supposed to be used. It happens.

And obviously some age restrictions and guidelines ARE needed, but these little people need freedom and encouragement to grow into the people God made them to be.

I’ll admit, messes eventually stress me out, and I have to set boundaries. That massive blanket fort? Yeah, it was allowed to exist for about three days, and then it’s squatting rights were removed. I couldn’t even walk into the room to put laundry away.

I’m one of those moms who feels really unsettled by toys everywhere. So there is a constant tug of war in my heart between embracing the creative juices and finding order and tidiness in our home. We have some basic stipulations: the living areas need to be picked up when Daddy comes home so our space feels peaceful and clean. We have several “blitz” sessions during the day where all toys get picked up, with sometimes the exception of a big project or play creation.

As their mom, I have to be willing to put up with the process, to see the value through the tent spanning a bedroom for days. Late at night under that quilt canopy, I caught my delayed reader plowing through a thick book and reading it aloud to his sister.

I would never have captured this moment if I had let tidiness win the war that day.

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Christmas is coming, and with it, a mad rush to buy gifts. In one fell swoop, our often-crowded homes can easily become invaded by a new surge of stuff. Stay a step ahead of this, and be intentional by only bringing in things that will inspire your child to create and develop motor skills. Intentionally get rid of things that are not stimulating your child in a healthy way. Sometimes that means reselling, donating or even pitching stuff. You can even tell grandparents and friends who will be purchasing your child a gift of their current creative interests, and help guide sometimes lost gift givers to just the right thing.

Here is a surprising truth: our children actually get overwhelmed with too many toys and feel frustrated. I heard the story of a mom who quietly one night heavily culled and organized her children’s play area. The next morning she held her breath as the children rounded the corner to discover the new and improved play area. Instead of anger, she heard the delight in her daughter’s voice,
“Mom, you cleaned up our toys! THANK YOU!”

Find things that excite your children, and get behind their dreams and motivate them. It starts when they are little. Yesterday as Daniel and I were finishing up our morning coffee date on the couch, two-year-old Lakelyn was absorbed in her world of mommying her baby, swaddling and bouncing her to sleep.

“Isn’t it amazing how God built all that in?” I whispered.

45541231_2237048329874753_1165844799207505920_n.jpgShe literally spends hours every day dressed up as a mamma or “Mary” pushing her baby in the doll stroller, tucking and re-tucking the blanket, chattering to her baby or singing songs. I’m sure the safety specifications of the stroller were not created for carrying the 2-year-old mommy, but she’s tiny enough that the stroller handles her narrow hips quite well and she gets rides in it too! 😀

My friend Kate makes adorable baby carriers that encourage these little mamma instincts in such a lovely way. Provide these little mammas with the tools they need, and then praise them for being such gentle, caring mothers.

My daughter Tirzah has dreams of going to nursing school someday, and so for her birthday, we got her a scrub set and a few random medical supplies from the dollar store. Between that and a couple sets of medical tools (here is a wooden set!), we often have surgeries and CPR sessions happening in our living room.

I’m not a great cook, and when we discovered Junior Masterchef with hopes of inspiring my culinary interests, we were drawn into the world of flavors and tastes and food presentation. Not only did I look at cooking in a new way, but my children were suddenly fascinated too, peering over my shoulder as I cooked, and begging to chop vegetables and make “soup” with the scraps. I broke my “no big toy” rule when I found a second hand Ikea kitchen that fit perfectly in their room. We were given some lovely little metal pots and pans and added some wooden food items, and my girls have spent countless hours stirring up concoctions and have served me plate after plate. Yes, sometimes we have two kitchens to clean up, but with three little girls in the house, it is a good fit at this time. Once they outgrow it, we will pass it on or resell it for something they will need in the next season.

Art supplies are in ever constant demand around here. During some lectures in school, I let my students draw as they listen. Washable markers and colored pencils are used every day, and I find it easiest to have a caddy to keep them all in. If you have a child that loves freelance drawing, consider giving them a sketch journal, where they have their work all contained in one book. It is so fun to watch their style develop over time as they fill the pages with illustrations. Good art supplies also open the door for making cards and drawings for people or sponsor children, not to mention the wonderful motor skills it provides.

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My ten year old has been putting his axe and Leatherman to hard use each day as he spends hours carving spoons. He is aiming for those lovely long wooden spoons with the natural grain running through them.
45812593_1983365318418450_3951759611882635264_nHis Leatherman Wave is always on his belt or in his hands, a birthday gift from his daddy this year. A boy needs a multitool, and this one has been a winner.

Yes, he’s cut himself a time or two, but he’s learned that a sharp blade means business- just the kind of business his wooden spoons need.

I’m pretty sure he’s on the edge of upgrading to a real spoon carving set which will be earned by a few more pages of neat handwriting in school. It comes recommended by a tried and true outdoorsman friend whose creativity and hours spent in the great outdoors has led to his own business, way to go JayBerry!

One thing I’m seriously looking into a fitness tracker for my two oldest. They have so much energy, and I think keeping track of their steps and activity would motivate them to get out, even in cooler weather and burn up some laps in the field. Weston has run 5Ks before, and Tirzah is chomping at the bits to join him. What better way to train than be self motivated to beat yesterday’s steps?

45828584_366328177271272_3749217874850349056_n.jpgWe love it when our children spend time outdoors. The constraints of walls fade and the sky is the limit, or nearly. Our children daily spend time on the big rope swing tied into our sprawling oak tree. After discovering big “web” swings, Daniel and I knew that someday we would have get one for our little troop.

45721880_2098662683525149_20756627753795584_n.jpgEventually we settled on this one after watching reviews pretty carefully and it has been perfect. It can be hung in a regular swing set, but let’s be honest, the long swing that a high tree branch affords is just hard to beat. It has been in constant demand, not only by my four littles and any of their friends that come over, but also an occasional adult just HAS to give it a try.

One thing I love about this swing is it really invites them to play together well, for one to push others, to jump on, to all have fun as a group.

We have even had friends come over and give the swing a try before ever even coming to the front door, it’s been THAT popular! 😀

And of course, for those long cold winter days, books, duplos or legos will always be out in our home. The sound of legos being dug through has become one of those permanent sounds of motherhood. It means children are lost in the world of creation. I LOVE that so many things can be built from them, and that sets all work together. Score if you can find them second hand, too! And here’s a tip: have your child keep them on a sheet, so when it’s time to clean up, you can pick up the sheet and sanity to the room is restored in a jiffy!

45628890_2270798396483015_2511884435922616320_nAt the end of a good day outside, my kids are often filthy. Sap gets stuck in their hair, and splinters in their feet. The grime under their fingernails tells the story of lots of mud cakes and puddings. Clothes get really ratty after living as pioneers in the woods. “Going barefoot and getting dirty boosts the immune system,” I remind myself with a smirk as I jam another load of laundry into the washer.

But any day I’d trade clean clothes for my woods ringing with the sound of my girlies laughing together or my son constructing a fort from saplings he’s felled.

What can we give our children today that will help them develop and prepare for their futures? Are we preparing them to try hard things, to attempt things they’ve never done before? Are we inviting them to stretch their wings and practice flying?

These days are some of the most formative in their little minds, and I want them to be filled with imagination and creativity and experiments. I want them to know they were celebrated, on the messy days and the clean ones.

Some day they will fly the coop. I want to make these short days with them at home fun ones, where their imaginations and perspectives were celebrated.

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Find your child’s creative outlets and become their biggest cheerleader.
Let them know you believe in them, and help equip them with the tools they need to reach their dreams.

 Sometimes that is just time in the great outdoors, or a camping trip or cooking supper over a fire in the backyard.

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This is just one of the many areas where we mothers can sit and learn from our children, and their endless imaginations.

It’s a wonderful life, this world of creative children.

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