The Incredible Value of Creative Play

Gillian Lynne, Choreographer of "Cats:

“Cats” the Musical

Gillian Lynne is a British dancer and choreographer with a long and impressive list of theatrical credits, including being the lead choreographer of the hugely successful musical “Cats”, and also of “Phantom of the Opera”, the longest running musical in Broadway history.

When Gillian was in the second grade, however, her mother was concerned by her underperformance at school and took her to a doctor for evaluation. The wise doctor realized that Gillian’s fidgeting and inability to concentrate was due, not to an academic problem, but to her inborn need to move.

Upon the doctor’s recommendation, Gillian was enrolled in a dance school. Because of this perceptive solution, the world of musical theatre has gained the benefits of her tremendous talent.

What course might the young Gillian’s life have taken if she had instead been told to sit still and be quiet, or if she had been medicated, in order to solve her schooling “problem”?

Children Are Naturally Curious

Sir Ken Robinson on Creativity

Sir Ken Robinson

In this video from, Sir Ken Robinson states his conviction that children are natural explorers who are willing to make mistakes while they are learning and satisfying their curiosity. Too often, sadly, this willingness to explore is stifled as we move through educational systems that demand the “right” answer. It’s not surprising that by the time most of us are adults, we’ve forgotten how to be creative.

The real problem, Sir Ken says, is that the world ahead will be very different from what we know now, and in the future, creativity will be demanded of us if we are to adapt. In today’s education, then, teaching creativity is as important as teaching literacy. A worthy goal is to teach your children so that when they are adults, they won’t have to break out of limits on their creativity because those limits were never imposed.

How can parents of young children create this kind of environment of creative learning at home? Here are some basic concepts:

Creative Environments

Set up creative spaces in your home that stimulate the senses and provide opportunities for open-ended play. Examples: stock up sensory bins in the playroom; find cardboard boxes of various sizes; playground, sandbox, and/or garden in the back yard; decorate your child’s bedroom in unexpected ways (add a slide to get down from the top bunk, for example); and so on and so forth – let your own creativity be your guide! Plus, there are plenty of great ideas on Pinterest.

Provide a relaxed, comfortable, safe, positive atmosphere for play time, including well-defined rules about how to play. Don’t be in a rush (then it would be work!). Put on some happy music in the background. Turn snack time into impromptu party time. And guide your children through smooth transitions into and out of play time.

Types of Creative Play

Encourage these three types of creative play times: (1) open-ended play, (2) building / construction play, and (3) role play.

Parenting in the Sweet Spot: The Incredible Value of Creative Play

Playing together

(1) Open-ended play: exploring how things work (stacking, sorting; toys to play with water, dirt or sand; etc.); art projects (tin foil sculpture is one fun example); outdoor investigations of how nature looks, smells, sounds, tastes, feels, and operates; and so on (in an open-ended sort of way).

(2) Building / construction play: Blocks; Legos, Duplos, K’Nex and other interlocking sets; cardboard boxes plus tape, paint, markers, etc.; modeling clay, play dough, and other shapeable materials; and so forth. This kind of play lets you “think with your hands”.

(3) Role play: imaginary social settings, such as “store”, “house”, “dress-up”, etc. These social play scenarios teach cooperation and empathy, and give children chances to practice different social roles.

Creative Problem-Solving

During play time with siblings and friends, encourage the kids to work together to develop and explore creative ideas about their play scenarios. Be alert to upsets in the making so you can keep things calm, and also help the kids grow in negotiation skills when there are disagreements.

Friendships and play times go hand in hand: when children share happy times exploring their imaginary worlds together, they form beautiful bonds.

Each Child is Uniquely Creative

It’s safe to assume that each of your children is gifted in their own way. It’s our job to discover and encourage their interests, just like Gillian Lynne’s parents made it possible for her to pursue dance. So we moms and dads get to be creative in how we understand our children, and we have the opportunity to recapture our own creativity when we enter into creative play with them.