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Teaching Your Kids: Limit Non-Creative Activities

As we learned in the last lesson, Leslie Margolis had several techniques she used to help her kids be more creative. Fortunately, you don't have to be an artist, inventor, or professional toy designer to help a young person develop creativity. It turns out, one simpler way to do it is to remove less creative ways for them to spend their time. That's a lesson Emma Sartini didn't even know she was learning as a child. But she's glad she did.

Emma was the oldest of three children of a stay-at-home dad and a mom who worked as a retail executive. As Emma explains, one of the rules her parents made early on for all three of their kids was this: She said, "We weren't allowed to have toys with batteries or that needed electricity." Now, a lot of kids would consider that cruel and unusual punishment, especially today. But to Emma, that's just the way things were. She remembers the only exception to the rule was for toys like Lite Brite or K'Nex, where they were actually building the creation of their own design. She said, "Mom thought we shouldn't have toys where we had to be told what it was and how we had to play with it."

So how did they entertain themselves? She said, "We had to be more creative. I played with Lincoln Logs and the paper dolls I made. Or, we'd go for walks and collect rocks. Then we painted the rocks into different animals and created whole scenes with them. She said, I even remember my brother making wallets out of duct tape."

And spending an entire childhood that way led to some pretty powerful character traits for Emma and her siblings. Today, Emma is always trying to make something out of nothing. She says, "I don't mind buying something that isn't perfect. And it doesn't have to be a designer name brand either. I can get something from a thrift shop and fix it up. Or if I see a painting I like, I buy a blank canvas and make it myself. Or, if I cut the sleeves off of a shirt, I keep the scraps and make something out of them—maybe turn it into a bracelet or headband."

And if you think you see something other than creativity being developed here, you're right. Her parent's rule helped her develop a sense of frugality and resourcefulness. She says, "I still don't like things with batteries. I think it's wasteful. I even wash and reuse plastic Baggies."

But the rule may have had an even longer-term impact. All three children grew up to pursue a career in some kind of creative design. Emma studied industrial design and grew up to be a product designer, using her creativity on a daily basis. Her brother went to school for digital design. And her sister, who learned how to knit and crochet in elementary school, ended up making her own purses and hats in junior high, then went on to college to study fashion design.

Emma's parents raised a whole family of highly creative people. And it all started with a simple rule.

Now, just to bring this lesson up to date in the digital age, I know similarly-minded parents today who let their kids use computers and iPads, and other electronic devices. But only to learn something or create something. So, they can use it for their homework or to research something. Or they can use it to create something, like an art project or a computer program.

What they can't do on it is play video games, unless it's something like Minecraft, where the goal of the game is to create something.

So, I can understand that having a rule like this might sound draconian. And if so, then just try using it some of the time. Maybe they only have to follow the rule on odd-numbered days. Or maybe just during the school week. On the weekend, the rules don't apply. The point is that this kind of strategy can work by just limiting the amount of non-creative play, not eliminating it entirely.

And until then, share this story with your kids and have a conversation about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. What do you think about the "no batteries" rule at Emma's house?

  2. If your parents had the same rule, what kinds of things would you have to give up?

  3. And what do you think you would start spending your time doing?

  4. What are some things that use electricity that allow you to be highly creative?

Okay, in the next lesson, we'll look at the other side of the coin and talk about how, as a parent, you can make sure you're not squelching your child's creativity unintentionally.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith