The importance of creative play

There is a sweet duality in the developing toddler brain — boundless imagination alongside a tendency to be extremely literal. 

We ask them not to actually eat the dusty, colorful fallen leaves on the ground and later make a “garden salad.” Or we watch as they stare — perplexed — at the dark sky, after the announcement that it’s raining cats and dogs.

On the flip side — play a game of cloud-watching with a toddler and be blown away by what they come up with. 

“That cloud looks like a duck,” you say.

Your two year old replies, “I think it looks like a turtle with an ice cream cone. Helping Grandpa mow the lawn. With Elmo.” 

Her budding mind’s creativity is incredible, and is in a sense sprouted from the same seed that makes a toddler paradoxically literal — belief in the impossible, everything new, glitter as pixy dust, and a chat with the man in the moon. She doesn’t quite understand the world yet and the possibilities are limitless. The time is ripe for exploration and creativity.

I recently chatted with Molly Breen, a St. Paul native who taught music and dance to young children for years before becoming the director of Saint Anthony Park United Methodist Church Community Nursery School. She also leads a choir of — get this — children aged newborn to three. In her spare time? She’s working toward a Masters in Education, specializing in the early childhood years. As a mother herself, small, creative, ever-changing minds are kind of her thing. She enthusiastically talked with me about the importance of art, creative freedom, and imaginative play in a toddler’s development.

 “Current research shows evidence that the development of creativity and intelligence go hand in hand” Breen says. “Creative play makes kids smarter, that’s the bottom line. Actually, play makes everyone smarter!”

This is good news for parents — playing with your toddler is one of the finer perks of the job! 

But how do we guide exploration without squelching the very nature of creativity with our rules and pre-conceived notions? How do we encourage freedom of expression with little people who are limited in their abilities and possess an independence level that is constantly in flux? And what if we’re not crafty? Is there any hope for the not-so-creative parent trying to help their child explore their artsy side?

Worry not. You don’t need to know how to make a craft-show worthy reindeer out of a bag of pipe cleaners and a stick of glue, nor do you ever in your life have to use the word decoupage. 

 “I’ve always thought that parents and teachers are like the architects, setting up structure, materials, and opportunity for open-ended play. After these opportunities are created, it’s time to get out of the way,” says Breen. 

She also encourages a “yes mentality” and an acceptance of some level of mess. This means allowing for materials to be used in a way you wouldn’t have predicted rather than immediately saying no.

Again, this is within the structure initially created and does not require Mom or Dad to swallow frustration as they embrace a little Jackson Pollack on the duvet cover in the name of free expression. The structuring is merely trying something slightly closer to the parental comfort level while still honoring a little “come what may, rock on wild child” that accompanies our sweet toddlers.

For example, I have occasionally set up a “bathroom studio” in which I put a variety of brushes and washable paints in the bathtub. The guidelines are: paint what you want, how you want, but only on the tub and tile. The “beyond paper” scenario allows for creative rebellion while falling a few steps short of painting on the walls. And by the way, if you’re cool with paint on the walls — go for it! 

Of course, not all art requires mess. Not in the mood for clay? Put on some music and pull out the rhythm instruments. (These can look an awful lot like pots and pans!) Find things around the house and use them in your living room band. Don’t be alarmed if your toddler decides to name the band Cookie Drum. Just go with it.

There are so many wonderful ways to spark the imagination of your toddler. Beyond the desired developmental progress, you reap the benefit of togetherness, fun, a little mess, and occasionally a finished project for the fridge. 

Ah, a finger paint masterpiece on the fridge. Yes, Toddler Parent, that means you’ve arrived.


Jen Wittes lives in St. Paul and is the mother of two. She's helped many Twin Cities families in her work as a postpartum doula. 
Send questions or comments to jwittes@mnparent.com.