When I lived in Japan, I resolved to send my children to the local Japanese school. While other American families were sending their kids off to English-speaking schools in Japan, I wanted my children to be fully immersed in the language and culture. It paid off. It taught them to live in a different world from theirs. They learned how to clean the school (yes, even the toilets!) they served each other catered lunches everyday, they learned to be a responsible and ethical citizen, and learned not to waste food, paper, down to even a pencil.
I remember my youngest son in Kindergarten(Yochien) at Yamauchi Shogako. It was a very nurturing environment. When you walked into the classroom, I was captivated by the kaleidoscopic wall of handcrafted art projects the students have been developing all year long. The teacher proudly exhibited it on three sides of the wall in an artful sort of way. The warm linoleum floor was sparkling clean as the kids were running around in white socks. The room soaked in the sun and filled it with warmth and laughter. As the teacher was about the dismiss the class for the day, he wanted to summarize the day’s lesson. The kids were sitting down as he drew on the chalkboard. Immediately I was struck by his drawing skills. You could tell he wasn’t just a teacher who happened to draw, he was an artist. When I approached him later and asked him how he learned his craft, he told me it’s part of his job description as a kindergarten teacher! This really struck me because I’d always viewed art as an inborn talent. In other words, you give a child some paper and crayons, and you know immediately if they have a sense of talent through drawing, so how can someone draw like a real artist if they don’t have the talent?
When I was eight years old, I learned violin through a method called Suzuki. One of Suzuki’s rituals was observing other students, so I had to watch the advanced students play and practice before it was my turn. What impressed me was how I wanted to emulate them. I wanted to play the pieces the advance students were playing, so at home, I would turn on the cassette player and listen for hours they had played that day. I wanted to be like them. This is exactly what Suzuki intended to instill to the mind of the beginner musician. He wanted you to breathe music not only by doing, but my seeing, listening, and engaging so that music becomes your first language.
Creativity is not limited to artistic or musical expression. It’s a skillset, and not just an inborn talent, although it can be. It’s essential for problem solving and it’s our job as parents and teachers to encourage expression, foster creativity and to inspire freedom of thought.
Kids learn best through watching and mimicking, so there needs to be consistent exposure over time for creativity to develop.
Here are some general practices parents can incorporate during their kids’ formative years, before age 12.
- Expose them to other cultures, practices, people, and even different socio-economic classes. Get involved in your local clubs and community events. Exposing my kids to Japanese culture taught them how to communicate with other students who couldn’t speak the same language. It taught them to problem solve, to think beyond language. They quickly learned how their peers interacted with one another, and their teachers, and it taught my kids there was a world out there that operated on a different set of assumptions than American. This drew them outside their comfort zone.
- Make a practice of reading especially at an earlier age so it becomes a habit for them. Reading has multiple benefits not only in school, but their entire life. It opens them to a world of imagination, it improves their communication skills and they become better listeners, a clearer communicators and more mentally focused. Best of all, they will be prepared for the dreaded college essays that I actually am working through with my youngest one right now!
- Give them ample time to play not only by themselves but also with their friends. Discover, explore and problem solving happen when they have unstructured time to play alone or in groups. It’s important to interact with other peers so that they learn to consider different thoughts, ideas, and preferences.
- Consider having your child take up a musical instrument or enroll in an art class. Music and art have numerous benefits: they improve memory (you memorize the music), speech (another mode of expressing themselves), math (counting in music, or in art: using lines and developing spatial awareness) and visual development. Music and art are like a foreign language. You learn to express yourself through a medium other than words and communicate with your very being, your essence.
- Be mindful about the toys and gadgets you bring in the house, especially digital gadgets which tend to distract rather than enhance their development. Think about the purpose of every toy you give to your child by asking yourself three questions:
- Does this toy enhance the development in cognitive, motor or speech?
- Does it hinder social or speech development after a long time using the toy? If so, put a time limit, and be strict about the time allowed with the toy.
- Does this toy bring joy to my child and makes him a happier person after he’s played with it?
Asking yourself these questions will help you become purposeful and mindful about what your child is interacting with in the home.
Creativity develops organically but you need to also guide your child through a commitment to be an engaging parent in all spheres of their lives. By fostering this kind of environment, your child will become a problem solver who is better adjusted in the world we live in today.