I like to think of imagination, creativity and innovation as a continuum that I call "Mud-Mud Pie-Clay Pot." Every child loves to play with mud. Without much prompting, at the age of 3 or 4, most children will discover that mud can be shaped into play objects such as pies or cakes and it makes a great messy game to trade them or pretend eat them! However, many millennia ago, some Neolithic innovator realized that a certain kind of mud, when shaped into a pot and allowed to harden, could produce an object that would forever solve the problem of how to get water from the river to the cave.

Encourage Free Play

This genius inventor of the first clay pot must have had excellent parents-the kind who were relaxed enough to tolerate a bit of mess, encourage free play and reward original thinking. In the 21st Century, the clay pot may be passé, but the need for innovative thinking is not. CEOs at Fortune 500 companies agree that creativity is the trait they most value in employees. Top universities like Harvard and Stanford have initiated requirements for graduate students in the sciences and technology to also study arts subjects. Thought leaders like Daniel H. Pink (A Whole New Mind) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)-to name but two-have written about the importance of right brain thinking in modern man's quest to solve the complex technical, environmental, economic and social problems of the 21st Century.

Follow Your Child's Lead

Quite apart from the national imperative for increased innovation in America if our country is to remain a world leader, a second (and, to my mind, equally important) reason for children to develop their creativity relates to personal fulfillment. Educator Ken Robinson writes in his book The Element that intelligence in children is "diverse, dynamic and distinctive." It cannot be measured accurately by IQ tests alone. A parent's job, therefore, is to follow a child's lead and be open to any and every expression of personal passion. Robinson says that it is only when passion and aptitude are united that a person discovers her true calling and finds the work that will feed her soul for a lifetime. He gives the example of Mick Fleetwood (of Fleetwood Mac). When Mick, a poor student, quit school at age 16, his parents bought him a drum set and a train ticket to London. Or what about Arianna Stassinopoulos, a little girl born in Athens, Greece, who dreamed of attending Cambridge University until, with her mom's encouragement, she did? Now she is president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post.

Trust Your Child

In retrospect, of course, it is easy to see that like the Neolithic parents, Mrs. Stassinopoulos and the Fleetwoods, made excellent parenting decisions. At the time, however, I imagine that they were not easy decisions to make. What if their children's big dreams didn't work out? It's never easy to let our kids strike out on an uncommon path. It takes a lot of trust and humility for us to allow children to be leaders instead of expecting them to be followers in our own footsteps. But current education and psychological research shows that we must. The rich imaginative capacity that children are all born with is sadly being drummed out of them by an educational system that is still mired in practices held over from the Industrial Revolution. Research by Kyung Hee Kim, featured as the cover article in Newsweek in July 2010, shows that creativity scores in elementary-school age children have been dropping significantly since the 1990s. Kim uses the only established measure for creativity, the Torrance Test, and is able to compare extensive data that goes back to the 1950s when the test was first widely offered. No one has yet been able to explain exactly why scores have been dropping off so dramatically over the last 20 years, but some theories include:

  • Lack of free play time.

  • Loss of arts programs in schools.

  • The abundance of video games and entertainment.

  • Too little sleep and too much stress.

Offer Many Experiences

At the same time, we also know from brain scientists and developmental psychologists that the brains of young children are malleable. Until the age of 9 or 10, the neural pathways are open to making all kinds of connections. Children of these ages are often compared to "sponges" with the ability to absorb all kinds of knowledge and skills. But in pre-adolescence, a neural pruning takes place in our brains so areas that have not been stimulated or routinely used are closed off once and for all. The process is natural and necessary, but it does suggest that, as parents, we have a limited window of opportunity with our kids that we must be prepared to open for them so that they can climb through before it is too late.

Since you cannot anticipate what your child's natural inclinations and aptitudes will be, I believe that it is important to expose her to as many different experiences as possible. Seek out activities that allow for kinesthetic involvement, outdoor play, sports, foreign language, music and drama classes, especially if these subjects are not offered at your child's school. Even more importantly, use the period when your child is young to indulge in or, if necessary, reignite your own creativity. You don't need to have a voice competitive enough for American Idol to sing simple songs to your baby. You don't have to be Meryl Streep to read a bedtime story with expression and stop, here and there, to share questions with your child or allow her to speculate on how the story will end. Rather than buying all the latest toys, collect plastic bottles, cardboard tubes and egg cartons. Supply lots of tape and make a game of creating original puppets with your child. Give the puppets names, and make up a story in which these characters have roles. By creating alongside your child, you are validating the act of imaginative play. In addition, you can and should encourage her to break out of prescribed patterns. If every stick becomes a gun, challenge your child to imagine something more original-a paint brush, a telescope, a magic wand. When it comes to decorating cookies and cakes, consider offering a prize for the most unique design. Appreciate and celebrate originality in your child and you will set her on a path towards her discovery-and yours-of her unique identity.

What a pity it would be if those Neolithic parents had insisted on cupped hands at the riverside!

Janet Stanford is artistic director at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. Imaginationstage.