8 Tips for Raising Creative Kids from Working Artists

published Sep 30, 2021
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Of all the gifts we hope to bestow upon our children, a penchant for creativity might fall low on the list. As novelist Chris L. Terry quips of his son’s interest in the arts, “It might be smarter for us to steer him toward med school so he can support us later, but here we are.” 

But make no mistake, nurturing the growing artists in our homes can have meaningful results: creative kids are strong problem-solvers, after all, and they learn the magic of self-expression young. Below, we tapped eight parents working in the arts to share their secrets for coaxing little imaginations to take flight. 

1. Give them a space of their own

Virginia Woolf said it first: to flex one’s creative muscle, they must have a “room of one’s own” to do so. Rest assured she wasn’t referring to toddlers and their access to crayons, but the sentiment still stands — people of all ages need a dedicated space to let their imaginations play. But don’t be thrown off by the word “room.” A space of one’s own can be as simple as a desk scooted into the kitchen or a supply-packed basket slid beneath a child’s bed. 

This rule is precisely what Sean Rubin, an illustrator and children’s book author in Charlottesville, Virginia, lives by. Rubin, who created Bolivar and contributed to Redwall and Mouse Guard, built space for his boys right inside his studio. While he works, Rubin’s sons set up at the painting table or reading nook, with easy access to art supplies and good things to read. “Naturally, creative activity tends to spread beyond those areas,” he adds. “That’s okay, too.” 

Try this: Carve out a small area in your home for your child’s imagination to run wild. Take a cue from Rubin and stock it full of crayons, paper, and craft supplies, or transform your space into a cozy reading nook complete with a comfortable chair and well-stocked bookshelf. If you’re short on space, the right supplies can transform a basket or rolling cart into a travelling art studio. 

2. Always keep costumes on hand

There’s a lot of talk of ensuring kids have access to art supplies — and rightfully so — but actor Megan Ferguson reminds us there are plenty of other ways to be creative, too. Ferguson, who you’ll recognize from Grace & Frankie, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Gossip Girl, among others, keeps a dress-up drawer for her daughters to rifle through. 

“Unsurprisingly, the children of two actors do love a dress-up moment. So they have a drawer of costumes that are treated as prized possessions,” Ferguson says. “They tend to ‘perform’ for us with music, with my older child ‘directing’ until my youngest finds herself very bored with the director’s vision.”

Try this: There are cast-off costumes aplenty in neighborhood no-buy groups, resale shops, and virtually anywhere leading up to Halloween. To shop online, brands like Maisonette and Little Adventurers are veritable treasure chests of all things pretend play. Tuck a few items into a basket at home and let your little one’s imagination run free. 

3. Team up on an art project

Creatively speaking, children are natural-born dabblers. Katherine Tsina Bird, a classically trained dancer and the founder and fashion designer at Avion Clothier in Los Angeles, California, makes a joint adventure out of her son’s creative curiosity. 

“We do blind contour line drawings where we do portraits of one another,” Tsina Bird says of the 10-year-old son she shares with singer-songwriter Andrew Bird. “It usually is very fun and silly how they turn out.” Together, they brainstorm new ways to be creative, from pulling out watercolors to trying something brand new, like ceramics. 

“I think it’s fun to have your kids be part of what you’re working on, so they know their work is helping yours,” she notes. 

Try this: Follow in Tsina Bird’s footsteps and dive into blind contour line drawing with your child. The basic idea is to keep your pen on the page and sketch without peeking. You can find a full tutorial here

4. Create a music playlist together

When it comes to things like scratchy socks and mushy peas, our little ones are awfully opinionated. Mike Przygoda, a composer and multi-instrumentalist in Chicago, Illinois, learned to harness his son’s opinionated nature for good. 

“My son loves to dance, so we curate a playlist for him and make sure to dance it out in the mornings when he’s getting ready for school,” Przygoda says. “I introduce him to new songs and he lets me know if he likes them or not (and often he surprises me with his choices!).” 

Not only have Przygoda’s playlists broadened his son’s musical horizons, but singing along has strengthened his developing vocabulary, too. Przygoda adds that his little one uses “all kinds of words he learns from songs throughout the day.” 

Try this: Using a service like Spotify or GooglePlay, make a kid-friendly playlist your little one will love. Tune in together and ask them to weigh in on your picks, or suggest tunes of their own. Dancing is definitely encouraged.

5. Practice saying “yes” to their creative requests (even the wild ones)

When her son was young, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Shara Nova, made a tangible practice out of flexibility. With crates, cardboard, tents, and forts, Nova — who leads the band My Brightest Diamond — encouraged her little one to reimagine spaces around their home. Now that Nova’s son is in middle school, she admits they’ve traded in forts for art supplies and other forms of creativity. 

“Now clothing and self expression are becoming more important, and I follow my child’s lead. Pink hair you want? Pink hair you shall have,” she says. 

For Nova, encouraging an open mind and allowing for free, creative thought has been paramount. “A fixed mind is less able to see possibility, metaphor, or the invisible,” she notes. “How do I encourage a flexible, open mind [that’s] able to imagine something new?” 

Try this: Swallow the impulse to say “no” to your child’s outlandish requests and, instead, make a practice out of giving their ideas a go (within reason). Adopt Nova’s nonchalance toward hair color and bring home a kid-safe hair chalk that washes out with one shampoo. 

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

6. Nudge them towards something they haven’t done before

When approaching a creative project, who hasn’t let their self-doubt get the best of them? For Cyn Vargas, a Chicago-based writer and author of the short story collection, On the Way, teaching her daughter to tune out this inner critic is her top priority. 

“We remind her that it’s effort over perfection,” Vargas says. “Trying new things and finding out you don’t like them is as important as knowing what you do like. Trying new things is brave and [vital].” 

To this end, Vargas and her daughter take trips to the craft store to try out new artistic mediums together. The pair have painted everything from bird houses to canvases, and have tried their hand at comics, too. “I tell her, not only that I am proud of her, but [that she should] be proud of herself for being so creative too,” says Vargas. 

Try this: Be bold and try something new together, like a hand-crafted hanging mobile, a whimsical shadow puppet set, or hand-bound books. And if your work of art flops? Embrace the messiness of the creative process and pat yourselves on the back for being brave enough to leave your comfort zone.

7. Turn recyclables into an art station

Chris L. Terry, a novelist in Los Angeles, California and author of Zero Fade and Black Card, is impressed by his son’s knack for artistic repurposing. Terry and his wife, filmmaker Sharon A. Mooney, have set up what Terry describes as a sort of recycling center for their first grader. 

“He loves making stuff out of cardboard — characters, scenes, vehicles, weapons … He sees stuff and tries to recreate it. It’s really cool,” Terry says. “We encourage this by giving him some space to do so in our (already crowded) dining room … there’s a pile of cardboard between my desk and his craft drawers.” 

Try this: Heading to the trash can? Not so fast! If your child can put their creative spin on your castaways, set them aside for an artistic challenge. Take a note from Terry and hand your kid a cardboard box or two, encouraging them to make something cool with only the materials on hand. 

8. Make libraries and bookstores your go-to outings 

Thea Goodman, a novelist in Chicago, Illinois, and author of The Sunshine When She’s Gone, has always modeled what it means to be a dedicated reader, a crucial step to becoming a writer. She shares that even when her children were very little, her family would pack up and spend hours upon hours browsing the titles at bookstores. Goodman’s kids see her reading, and the whole family prioritizes spending time and resources on good books.

Try this: There are so many ways to take in new reads, whether you’re an avid library-goer, bookstore browser, or audiobook-lover. Take some time to read through book descriptions with your kids to see what might inspire the story-lover within. If your child has a competitive side, keep a running list of books each of you completes, seeing who can rack up the most reads by year’s-end. If your child’s more reflective, keep a shared journal where you drop in notes, doodles, and favorite passages while you read.