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18 Ways to Promote Creativity and Imagination in Young Toddlers

outside play
Gavin playing outside.

Recently, Meredith wrote about The Power of Creative Play. Lately, I’ve been noticing Gavin engage in pretend play more and more. He likes to sweep the tile or mow the lawn (actually, he obsessively loves to mow the lawn) while he pretends to be his daddy. He holds a phone on his shoulder and pretends to talk to his Nana like his mama. Each day he shows me that he is using his imagination and creativity to play and interact with other people. He is also using his own creativity to make decisions and solve problems.

As a child, I practically lived in my imagination, and it all seemed so real. One of my favorite things about having a kid around now is that I am able to travel back to that world of imagination where anything is possible and everything has a little bit of magic. As Meredith pointed out in her post, imaginative and creative play is crucial for development, and I couldn’t agree more. It is clear to me that the imagination of the younger years lends itself to the critical thinking skills needed for the rest of our lives. I try to encourage Gavin’s creativity everyday, whether it is in play or just finding creative solutions to problem solving or making decisions.

I had my own 18 month old in mind when I made the following list, but I think most of these ideas would apply to older toddlers, as well. Leave us a comment and let us know how you promote creativity and imagination with your children.

  1. Don’t criticize his ideas. Gavin has some interesting ideas. For example, lately he wants  our dog, Brody, to push his lawn mower. Okay, I’ll admit that I did hold the dog’s front paws up to the lawn mower to be funny, but usually I would say something like, “You want  Brody to push the lawn mower?” And then I would ask Brody to do it, which of course, he can’t. Then I tell Gavin, “Oh, well. I guess he doesn’t want to.”  I didn’t need to tell him he’s wrong for having such a thought. He saw for himself that it wasn’t going to happen. Hopefully next time, he’ll still feel comfortable telling me his ideas – no matter how crazy they seem.
  2. Encourage her to solve her own problems. Gavin’s toy may get stuck under the couch or he can’t find something he is looking for. Although I don’t completely leave him to his own devices, I will encourage him to solve the problem himself. I’ll say, “I wonder if you can reach it from here?” Or “I wonder if we left it in your room?” Then he can retrieve the item himself. This allows him to creatively find different approach problems.
  3. Let him make choices – about what they wear, what they eat, what they want to do, etc. Hold out two different shirts and let him decide which one to wear that day, and let him choose the pants, too. This might not have anything to do with playing, but it allows him to be creative and independent. When choosing food, rice and applesauce might not sound good to you, but it may be exactly what he wants to eat. Offer healthy choices, but allow him to make the choice.
  4. Enjoy the arts – visit an art museum, go to a concert, or watch a play or dance performance. Just because these venues and activities seem stuffy and mature, that doesn’t mean your child won’t enjoy them. Gavin loves to look at the art on our walls and in books. He also loves music. We recently took him to a music festival and he just danced and listened to the music for several hours.
  5. Read books. The more fantastical, the better. Beatrix Potter books are perfect for this. I also love Nancy Tillman’s stories and illustrations.
  6. Engage with your child while she’s using her imagination. Get down on the ground and play with your child. If she wants to pretend that a toothbrush is a hairbrush, just go with it. Try to use your own imagination, too!
  7. Let him help with chores. Gavin loves to copy his dad. He will look under the cars, sweep the kitchen, and mow the lawn (sorry I keep talking about mowing the lawn, but this is how Gavin would spend 90% of his day. We even had to shower with his little lawn mower recently!).
  8. Let her play with other kids that are her age. The imagination’s possibilities are endless when two toddlers are playing together.
  9. Expose him to a variety of settings. Visit the woods, museums, parks, farms, zoos, airplanes, cars, trains, restaurants, lakes, rivers, mountains, desert, ocean, caves, heights… you get the idea. Different settings will broaden their knowledge and open their imaginations.
  10. Let her play without toys. She will play, regardless. When Gavin doesn’t have any toys to play with (and even when he does), he likes to find sticks, rocks, puddles of water, and dirt.
  11. Provide toys that encourage the imagination and creativity such as simple musical instruments, simple wooden toys, and dolls with simple features. Allow him to imagine the face on the doll or the the function of the wooden truck.
  12. Let her play alone. Leave your child to play without interference and see what she comes up with.

    Gavin mowing the lawn.
  13. Give gifts of experiences instead of toys for birthday and holidays. Sure, it is fun to open a new gift, but it is also fun to get a year-long membership to the zoo where you can visit the animals any time of the year.
  14. Indulge his interests. Gavin is obsessed with tractors right now. Because he is so interested in tractors, I think this is a great opportunity for him to enjoy his passion. He likes to play with his wooden tractors (they usually go back and forth on the carpet – just like they do in a field), see tractors as we pass them on the road, and listen for any type of mowing device that someone might start up in our neighborhood. This mom at NapTime Blogs shows what a child and his imagination can do when he is allowed to indulge in his passion.
  15. Limit time spent watching TV, playing with fancy/loud/obnoxious toys, or in confining environments where a toddler must act a certain way (like in a restaurant or around certain people). These things do not push the limits of the imagination. They tell the toddler how to think and act. While I don’t eliminate these types of toys and activities completely, our society is overwhelmed by them and it is easy to allow these things to take over our lives.
  16. Give your toddler random items and see what he comes up with. Give her a cardboard box, a whisk, and blanket and watch what she does with it. She will find something to do with these items, and it is up to her imagination to figure it out.
  17. Provide safe zones all around your house that let your toddler explore. For example, a kitchen cabinet with safe kitchen gear or a bathroom drawer with safe items such as toilet paper and a hair brush. There are certain areas of the house where it seems like I’m always saying “no” to Gavin, and this is especially true in the kitchen (licking the garbage can, climbing on the table…). I have safe items in the lower cabinets and he is free to play with them as he wishes. The same is true in the bathroom, living room, and the office. If they are all safe, I can relax, and he is free to create and imagine.
  18. Give your toddler safe places where they can be physical. Spot them as they climb on a chair or couch or follow him up and down stairs. Gavin likes to climb on EVERYTHING. However, being physical is important to him and I believe it is also important for his creativity to learn how to climb and get down. He has also started to pretend to be the dog and lay on the back of the couch. I can provide certain times and places where I allow this to happen, and it gives him the physical creativity he craves.
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