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Childhood creativity requires time to discover
VICTOR ADY/Gazette StaffUsing markers or colors allows a child to express her creative side.

A Swiss engineer who paid attention to the cockleburs stuck to his pants came up with a great idea.

The engineer, George de Mestral, looked at the burrs under a microscope in the 1940s, noticed the way their tiny hooks latched on to the loops of thread and created Velcro's hook-and-loop fastener system.

"He was able to take the time to look at a cocklebur and change the world," said C. Jane Estelle, a Billings counselor and art therapist. Estelle, along with specialists in early childhood education, offered some tips to parents interested in nurturing creativity in their children.

Children should have time to just sit and dream, to sit in a field and absorb the wonder of the world, said Nancy Jo McElroy, the owner and director of the Billings Montessori School.

"Creativity is calling for the wonder within the child, for the child's imagination to come forth," McElroy said.

While creativity is a basic part of the human essence, some people seem more capable of tapping into their creative nature.

Our culture tends to be fast-paced, imitative, competitive and product-oriented, Estelle said.

"Those are all aspects that move us outside the realm of the creative process," she said.

McElroy faults contemporary society for its failure to value "down time." She warns parents against overbooking children in structured activities and suggests eliminating or severely limiting the amount of time young children spend watching television or videos or using the computer. She advocates using the "extra" time to allow children to discover the amazing world around them. They should have time to play in a sandbox and have access to a "toolbox" of markers, plain paper and glue.

Parents should try to celebrate the creative process, rather than critiquing the final product. Clay is a great play material for children, Estelle said. While working with clay, children can think about things, work independently and create things without worrying too much about the end product.

If a child likes to build, parents can provide a hammer and nails, along with proper supervision. But parents should refrain from continually asking what the child is building.

Parents can also nurture creativity by exposing children to the wide variety of cultural activities offered in Billings.

"What parents can do is spark the fire, ignite that creativity," said Suneetha de Silva, associate professor of elementary education at Rocky Mountain College.

Well-meaning parents who attempt to direct a child's play, can sometimes end up over-directing, editing, changing or fixing a child's work. Children sometimes interpret those remarks as pointing out flaws or mistakes in their work.

"All of it's done with no malice of intent on the part of the parent, but it does have an effect on the child's faith in himself to create," McElroy said.

Since creativity seems tied to a willingness to take risks, a child who is constantly corrected may be unwilling to take those chances.

Instead of telling a child what you see in his artwork, McElroy said, she encourages parents to ask open-ended questions that let the child explain what he's created.

"Children can be so creative with one set of blocks and a few cars or a few dolls," McElroy said.

She suggests that reducing the number of toys in a child's bedroom can actually spur children to be more creative with what they have. If possible, parents should set aside an area where children are allowed to make a mess, since young children's artwork tends to be messy.

Jane Carlson, a kindergarten teacher at Lockwood primary school, often sees a surfeit of expensive toys in the discard pile at yard sales. The sad part, she said, it that a robot that walks and flashes lights may not stimulate creativity as much as giving a child a cardboard box and letting him become the robot.

When parents read to children, they can stimulate their children's imagination by asking them what they think will happen next.

"Make it really interesting and make them think," de Silva said.

Carlson tries to couple opportunities for creativity in the classroom with the mastery of essential skills. By assigning open-ended projects, she allows children to go beyond the basic skill level. In one such assignment, she asks her kindergarteners to draw a dog and then to list as many words as they can that rhyme with the word "dog."

Under the influence of "No Child Left Behind," the emphasis has shifted toward the mastery of basic skills, but primary teachers also try to give children the opportunity to exercise their imaginations.

"Creativity doesn't fit in a box very well," Carlson said.

Our culture tends to be very evaluative, giving out rewards for creative endeavors that imply one person's work is better than another person's, Estelle said.

"It's all part of the competitiveness in our culture, which I think is a creativity killer on some level," she said.

If parents are too eager to praise and reward a child for his accomplishments, a child may attempt to master a skill to please or perform for a parent rather than for any intrinsic motivation.

"Parents have to be very careful that they aren't asking their children to live their unlived life," Estelle said.

The parent who always wanted to study ballet should avoid pushing a child into becoming a dancer.

Highly creative children may tend to be daydreamers or loners, traits adults often singled out as worrisome. Creative ideas require some space and time. De Silva describes children whose time is so structured that they rarely have time for a walk in the garden.

"They only know play time, nap time, snack time. There's no blank time," she said.

She suggests slowing things down a bit to allow children more free time for playing, resting and daydreaming.

Donna Healy may be reached at 657-1292 or