Creativity isn't a quality that some children are born with and others lack but rather an approach to life and set of learnable skills. Solid scientific research indicates that encouraging creativity -- not just by exposure to art and music during the foundational years before 5, but by encouraging creative approaches to problem-solving, communication and everyday activities -- enhances happiness and life satisfaction in a lasting way.

Stages of Creative Development

Just as they develop language and balance, young children go through phases in learning creative self-expression. Art teacher and author Betty Edwards and art education professor Viktor Lowenfeld use different terminology, but their observations are in agreement:

  • Before age 2: Both Lowenfeld and Edwards identify age 2 as the "scribbling stage." Before 2, children soak up sensory perceptions and learn basic communication. At 15 months, some begin to scribble when given a chance.

  • At age 2 to 3: Edwards describes age 3 as the onset of the "stage of symbols"; Lowenfeld describes ages 3 to 5 as the "preschematic stage." Before 3, children begin noticing patterns in sights and sounds and causes and effects. They'll begin to make up stories, and many begin to build with blocks at this age. At age 3 to 4, children try to make their scribbles resemble objects and can draw basic shapes. Edwards points out that circles are a common first shape.

  • At age 4 to 5, which Edwards characterizes as the "pictures that tell stories" stage, children begin to create more complex stories both visually and verbally. They begin to use graphic symbols and express emotions like joy or sadness symbolically with form and color.

  • At age 5 to 6: Lowenfeld calls this the "schematic stage." Edwards calls it the "landscape stage." Children develop the fine motor coordination they need to draw a straight line or a circle with both intention and control. As a result, you'll see the beginnings of a personal style and more realistic imagery. Children begin to acquire a symbolic vocabulary around age 6: a square for a house, a circle for the sun.

Materials for Early Childhood Creative Play

Preprinted coloring books and battery-operated toys that focus the child on pushing buttons or watching screens do little to encourage creativity. Small children are better served by a space where they can make a mess without inconveniencing anyone and plenty of unstructured playtime with creative play supplies: building toys, drums, kazoos, costumes for dress up, finger paints and big rolls of paper, modeling clay and scaled-down items that are handy for games of "house" or "school" or "store."

Facilitating Creative Development

Art education experts have determined that creativity in the early years flourishes best in an atmosphere of enthusiastic support and benign anarchy. Creative thinking develops as children make choices and solve simple logistical problems. Adults can facilitate by brainstorming together, offering specific rather than overly general praise and helping a child analyze the steps she'll need to take to complete a project. Beyond that, the experts say, supervising adults should sit back and let a young artist develop her own ideas.

Benefits of Creative Development

Creativity is an important factor in success in hard sciences and in business as well as in fields traditionally considered "artsy," so a child who is encouraged to be creative is off to a good start in any direction. But long before he chooses a career path, a child reaps the rewards of creative play. Creative projects and pretend games build confidence and problem-solving ability, two qualities that are essential in academic success and in getting along well with others. Creative work also encourages higher order thinking skills as a child learns to break a larger task down into a sequence of steps he needs to take to reach his goal.