"Eleven Ways to Help Your Kids Develop Creativity and a Lifelong Love of Learning"Eleven Ways to Help Your Kids Develop Creativity and a Lifelong Love of Learning

Princess Ivana Pignatelli Aragona Cortes explains why a “dream big, play hard” parenting philosophy is so valuable, and shares how to make your home a growth-inspiring learning place every day.

For so many kids, using imagination to shape the world is second nature. For generations, youngsters have constructed forts, built rockets to the stars, thrown tea parties, performed backyard plays, and spent a good deal of time running, climbing, laughing, and believing that they could do anything they put their hearts and minds to. Chances are, you were one of them—and hopefully, your own children are following in your creative footsteps. But how long will their imagination-fueled pastimes last?

According to Princess Ivana Pignatelli Aragona Cortes, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of making sure the answer to that question is “a lifetime.”

“The magic and wonder of childhood is a valuable treasure, one that we should take care not to lose in the interest of ‘growing up,’” comments Ivana, who is a featured blogger at Modern Mom, founder of Princess Ivana—The Modern Princess, and coauthor of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year. “Too often, though, growing up is like shutting down.”

Specifically, Ivana says, as we progress toward adulthood and responsibility, we learn to deny our quests for the impossible dream, to lay aside our creative impulses and get to work. To view Ivana’s latest vlog on dreaming big, click here.

“What so many adults fail to understand is that imagination is a gift, and that using this gift increases intelligence by teaching us to look at the world in new ways,” she explains. “When we bury our creativity and love of learning, we are, in fact, doing ourselves a big disservice.”

Ivana is far from alone in holding this viewpoint. Ask a growing number of business leaders, and they’ll tell you that creativity and the ability to innovate are some of the most important life skills our children need for the twenty-first century. Especially as the global economy becomes flatter, faster, and more competitive, scientists, entrepreneurs, and engineers all depend upon creativity to find new solutions to old problems. So, how do we help our children develop the skills they’ll need to blaze a successful trail through this brave new world?

“‘Dream big, work hard’ is what my parents taught me, and in essence, it’s what I am trying to teach my children too,” Ivana answers. “But my take on this tried-and-true piece of advice is ‘dream big, play hard’ because I believe that good old-fashioned play is the best way to prepare my children to grow, succeed, learn, and be inspired.”

If you’re a parent, you know from experience that children play hard—it comes naturally to them. Youngsters are actually doing serious work as they play—“practicing” for the real world, if you will. They are trying on roles, imagining what it is like to be a mommy or daddy, figuring out how to run a business with their lemonade stands, or practicing numbers and how to handle money as they set up pretend stores. Any playground is filled with high-level negotiations in which children are learning social and language skills, organized thinking through game rules, and the art of collaboration by joining a team. Children explore courage and try on justice by pretending to be superheroes or princesses.

Here, Ivana shares several ways to make your home a learning place infused with growth-inspiring play:

First, make time for play. Believe it or not, in our overscheduled, planned-to-the-last-detail lives, many youngsters are actually lacking something called “free time.” Contrary to popular belief, your children’s schedules don’t need to be packed with sports practices, music lessons, academic enrichment, and more. The truth is, unstructured play is every bit as important as these other activities (and definitely not a waste of time).

“As I explained earlier, play is important work: It helps kids develop physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually, and more,” Ivana reiterates. “No activity, video, toy, or class can deliver those benefits in so concentrated a dose. Oh, and one other thing: Be aware that ‘play’ doesn’t always have to be accompanied by frenzied movement, dirt, and noise. Sometimes, it might look more like downtime: listening to music, daydreaming, reading, drawing, or something similar. All of these activities help kids learn about who they are, what they like, and what they want to do in the future.”

Welcome questions. When you begin to feel overwhelmed by your toddler’s never-ending “whys” or your adolescent’s infinite curiosity and boundary pushing, take a deep breath, stay patient, and be glad your children are asking questions. They’re a sign of intelligence and of a desire for continued growth. (For this reason, there really are no silly questions!)

Learn to speak in positives. Why do parents criticize their children? Well, in most cases, we really do have our kids’ best interests at heart. We want them to learn a valuable lesson, stay away from a dangerous behavior, or improve their performance in a certain area, for example. However, we don’t often realize that the way we frame these instructions can have a profound effect on our kids. That’s why Ivana urges you to scrub as much negativity from your parenting vocabulary as possible. Instead, she says, try to find ways to teach your children that will build them up instead of discourage them.

Get in touch with all of your senses. When children are able to experience the world through all five senses, they notice and learn so much more than they ever could in front a TV or computer screen. In fact, kids are wired to experience and understand the world through sensory experiences: Just think about all of the things your toddler touches, climbs on, stares at, and puts in her mouth, for example!

“A good way to play with the senses is to go exploring in your backyard,” Ivana shares. “Find bugs, flowers, and birds. Touch tree bark. Crinkle leaves in your fingers. Smell flowers. Name colors. If you’re stuck indoors, you can set up a guessing game. Put an object in a paper bag and ask your child to guess what it is based on touch. Blindfold her and ask her to identify something by smell or taste. And so on!”

Take some time to pretend. Pretend play is a good way to build your younger child’s imagination and intelligence. Put out a few objects like an empty cup or a plastic plate and spoon. Pretend you are eating or drinking and see if your child will do the same.

“Games like this help develop language ability because they enhance symbolic thinking, which is the basis for all language learning,” Ivana explains. “They also teach the child about ideas and how to transform the everyday world, which is the basis for all the arts and sciences.”

Help your kids flex their creativity muscles. Creativity is like a muscle; the more you use it, the easier it gets to pull off amazing feats. To help your kids build this skill, encourage the arts in your own home. Dance, play different types of music, sing songs, write poems, paint, draw, dress up.

Read to your children. We all know the basics of why reading is so important. To name just a few advantages, it fosters imagination, intelligence, and language skills, and it broadens youngsters’ worldviews by introducing them to new ideas, concepts, and information. More specifically, the earlier a child’s exposure to reading, the stronger his or her language skills will be. In fact, age two to four is the most important language development stage because it affects lifelong thinking patterns and cognitive outcomes.

Let your kids tell you a story before bed. Having a healthy imagination and strong sense of creativity is of limited use if you are unable to effectively synthesize information and communicate ideas. That’s why Ivana recommends asking your kids to recount their days—what they did, what they thought, what they felt—before bed every evening. (This will also help strengthen their memories and observation skills!)

Engage with your child. One of the most important things you can do to encourage your children’s natural interests is to simply be present with them—mentally as well as physically. Turn off your phone, set aside your to-do lists, and play with them. Get creative and enter the same imaginary world together!

“Sip that cup of pretend tea,” Ivana instructs. “Be voracious about gobbling up the ‘delicious’ chicken liver tarts your child has prepared. (If you’re curious, that’s a delicacy I served as a child!) And don’t say a word about what your kids ‘should’ have done. ‘Should’ is a word that should be banished from child’s play. Play is about being in the moment and letting all rules and expectations fly out the window, as high as they can go—a place where all things are possible.”

Let them play with others. Some kids are very social by nature, while others are less so. That’s okay. Just make sure that your children experience regular interaction with their peers. (If they’re school-age, this won’t be difficult.)

Don’t rely on toys and electronics. Every day, it seems that a new toy, video, or other so-called “educational product” for children is produced. But as you’re bombarded with marketing promising you that Product X will raise your child’s IQ, promote intellectual growth, or teach her essential skills, remember that nothing on a store shelf can compare with what your child already possesses: his senses, his imagination, and the world around him.

“Let your kids find their own stimulation from time to time,” Ivana recommends. “No, I’m not saying that toys, movies, or computer games are in any way bad; simply that they’re props, not the production itself. Don’t feel that you have to constantly entertain your child or put something in front of him to do. Leave him to his own devices from time to time. It will develop his ability to innovate, and you may be surprised by the results! Unstructured play often results in delightful creations like dining room table forts, magic wands made from paper towel rolls, daisy-chain crowns, and cardboard box rocket ships.”

“Every day, I hope you’ll encourage your children to ‘dream big, play hard,’” Ivana concludes. “When followed, this advice is a double win. First, it’ll help your kids to get the maximum amount of fun and excitement out of their childhoods. And without realizing it, they’ll be strengthening the skill set that will enable them to build meaningful, stimulating lives well into adulthood.”

Ivana is the author of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year, which was cowritten with her mother, Magdalene Smith, and her sister, Marisa Smith. Their blog, Princess Ivana—The Modern Princess, is a blend of humor, practical advice, and lifestyle tips on the essentials. Ivana is also a featured blogger on Modern Mom.