In an age where preschool admission is competitive and eighth graders worry about padding their college resumes, creativity tends to get short shrift. Teachers focus on drilling, students are busy memorizing, and parents assume creativity is all about art and story-telling – nice, but not as important as reading, writing and arithmetic. Right? Wrong! Creativity is about more than making great art; it’s about solving problems at work, making scientific discoveries, and inventing new technology. In fact, there is no area of life where a child wouldn’t benefit from a great imagination and the confidence to use it.

“All humans are born creative – it is what makes us human,” says Benjamin Olshin, Ph.D, Director of the Center for the Creative Economy at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “What happens in our educational system, generally, is that we take all that and suppress it.”

There’s probably not much you can do about our educational system, but there’s a lot you can do to inspire creative thinking:

  • Shop for toys that are interactive and can be used more than one way. Instead of coloring books, provide construction paper and crayons; instead of talking figures, help your child make up silly voices for plain-jane dolls and stuffed animals; instead of buying toys that only do one thing, show how wooden blocks and household items can become just about anything with a little imagination.

  • Improvise. Instead of running to the store the next time your child wants something, think about ways to create what you need. Could a laundry basket and a football be a basketball set? Could you make kneepads from bubble wrap and duct tape? Instead of stepping in immediately to solve her problems, brainstorm together and encourage her to take a risk. It’s okay if her ideas don’t always work; independent thinkers need to learn resiliency, too.

  • Encourage confidence, not conformity. So one sock’s blue and the other one’s red; so her bird has three wings. If you want to raise an original thinker, praise originality.

  • Turn off the TV! (Come on, you knew that was coming.) Read stories and get them involved: “What would you do? How do you think that makes him feel?”) Ask them to tell you a story. Close the book and make up a story or repeat a classic folk tale; without illustrations, their imagination will run wild.

  • Give ‘em time to daydream. Kids who race from school to scheduled activity to play-date don’t have the time to engage their imaginations. Let them be bored once in a while; they may surprise you with what they can dream up.

Need more ideas? Use your imagination!