I’m a huge proponent of free play for kids. Not everything needs to be planned or structured. Sometimes, kids just need simple materials and free time and space to just be kids.

It was enlightening to meet artist and educator Ursula Kolbe a few months ago and read through her latest book ‘Children’s Imagination, Creativity Under Our Noses’. This book is filled with fascinating case studies and anecdotes about children and the different facets of their play.

The book is separated into two sections. The first focuses on what sparks children’s imagination. This was especially interesting and I plan to incorporate Ursula’s ideas into our daily life. I also appreciated Ursula’s comment about how important repetition is to children and how they will repeat motifs in drawings or paintings. This has recently been occurring with my child’s art. I have to admit I hadn’t realised the significance until I read Ursula’s words that children do this out of curiosity and a desire to master a particular design.

The second part of the book advises how to nourish and support creative thinking in children. This section has so many great ideas to inspire kids such as providing time, space and materials. Time especially is crucial. Ursula stresses that it’s important for kids to have free time. There are so many structured activities available for kids to do such as sport, music, etc. but it’s important that there is also time for kids just to be. It’s in this free time, that they can let their imagination wander and express themselves in a creative manner.

I loved reading this book as I found it both instructive and inspiring. Ursula recommends this book for all those who live and work with children 1½ to 10 years. I especially liked the format of the book with case studies of different children and their play. Also useful was the addition of a parent’s perspective which I could completely connect with. This is provided by local Newcastle mum of three Susan Whelan. Through their written conversations, Ursula and Susan discuss the key points of the chapter and I found this really helped with my understanding of concepts.

I asked Ursula some questions about her latest book.

What was the motivation for writing this book?

This is my third book. As my first two were for teachers, my publisher suggested I write one for parents. Unsure of what sort of book I wanted to write, I began by collecting anecdotes and photos of children playing with materials of all kinds at home. However despite writing thousands of words, a book to my liking didn’t emerge. I was almost ready to give up when it dawned on me to ask: What sparks the imagination? — and then I knew what to write about!

I also became increasingly aware of how today’s pressure on parents is sidelining play. Being passionate about the importance of imaginative play as the foundation of learning, it became clear that I needed to emphasise this aspect throughout the book.

Why is it so important for kids to express themselves creatively?

What’s important is that children give voice to their own ideas, that they express themselves creatively through imaginative play—with whatever is at hand. Self-invented play, as leading psychologists, neuroscientists and educators write, is the foundation for developing imagination and creativity. It’s the foundation for developing problem-solving abilities, persistence and importantly, learning to engage constructively with others. Through play children explore ideas about themselves and their world.

What can parents do to nurture creativity?

Loosen the reins! If we want children to realise their potential as thinkers and creators, the answer lies in unstructured play that encourages them to devise their own challenges. Listen and watch with interest and empathy, but try to remain quiet (particularly with under-threes, but also under-fives). Educator John Matthews describes this as doing “a special kind of nothing”. The warmth of your company says much. Provide unhurried and uninterrupted time for self-invented play, enough space, and a limited selection of open-ended materials that can be used in many different ways. See yourself as a co-explorer rather than an instructor.

Do you think it’s important for parents to express themselves as well?

What’s most important is that we keep alive the creative spirit that we’re all born with—in any way we can. Because then we’ll be more in tune with children’s ever-evolving ideas as they play; we will not expect finished products or identifiable outcomes but instead will understand and enjoy the creative process involved in exploring possibilities and persisting with self-inspired challenges.

I really appreciate the perspective of a parent in this book. How did Susan get involved in the writing of this book?

When I became bogged down with the manuscript, it seemed a good idea to look for a collaborator. I remembered reading great reviews of my first two books by Susan (whom I didn’t know at the time) and so I emailed her. From our first moment of contact, we couldn’t stop talking! Susan became an absolutely wonderful supporter and invaluable contributor.

Many parents provide iPads or software apps for their kids. What software programs do you recommend for kids to explore their creativity while using technology.

In my book I wrote about an application for the Ipad called Explain Everything. It enables children to invent their own images and stories rather than merely manipulate adult-designed stuff. While this app is mainly made for use in schools and lectures, it also offers young children unique opportunities to extend their story-making and image-making abilities. New apps and programs are constantly coming on the market that you may wish to investigate. Look for ones that add to and extend children’s skills to express their own ideas. Keep in mind, however, that young children learn best about life through physical and social contact rather than from a screen. Anything that robs them of time for this direct contact should ideally offer them more than entertainment.

I asked Susan some questions about the role of parents in nurturing creativity.

As a parent, why is nurturing creativity so important to you?

I want my children to grow up to be confident, creative, resilient and curious individuals. I want them to be able to think outside the square and think deeply about the issues and events that happen around them. I’ve always felt that allowing them to develop their creativity – their ability to express themselves, explore ideas and problem solve – will help to build those characteristics.

I have also learned a lot about what is important to my children and what they think about things by looking at what they create. All three have pursued different ideas and activities using the same general materials depending on their personality, interests, and the way they approach ideas.

How do you nurture creativity in your house?

I have tried to make sure that my children have the ‘space’ to be creative – not just physical space, although that is important too, but time to explore ideas and opportunities to simply sit and think and wonder. It’s hard to really allow creative ideas to develop – whether it be for a painting, building something, exploring the backyard, or cooking – if you feel like you are running to a deadline.

My children have always had easy access to (age-appropriate) materials such as different types of papers, pencils, paints, glue, blocks, various materials from the recycling box, and a variety of different games and toys. I have tried to avoid craft kits and instead simply had containers, usually old shoeboxes, filled with various materials and things that the children could use to play games and create all sorts of things. This includes a dress-up box that contains scarves, odd socks, hats, and various mismatched clothes and accessories.

We also have lots and lots of books. Reading is a wonderful way to spark conversations and creative ideas. I have also always encouraged the children to ask lots of questions and when they have shown interest in a particular topic – trains, maps, writing, origami, weather – we have found books at our local library about that topic.

Why do you think that free time for children is so limited now?

I think that there is a lot of pressure on parents to actively ensure that their children reach their potential. We are made to feel sometimes that free play and unstructured time is somehow wasted time that would be much better spent building a specific skill or ability. It’s hard to resist the social pressure to know what your child’s particular strength is and to develop it as soon as possible.

I think that there are also a lot more options available now for activities for children of all ages. With such a wide variety of sports, dance, classes and activities for toddlers through to teens it is all too easy to discover that there is something scheduled for every afternoon and all weekend.

As a mum, what advice can you impart to other parents in encouraging their children’s imagination?

I think the thing I found the hardest was resisting the urge to step in and make everything ‘right’ when my kids were playing with different creative ideas. I wanted to show them how to do things properly and how to make everything ‘work’.

Over the years, I have discovered that they achieve their most amazing creations when I simply offer general comments (when asked) and encouragement, rather than instructions. We sometimes unintentionally limit our children’s ideas and creativity by assuming that they are aiming for a specific outcome or result. Simply being there to show interest in what they are doing and ask an occasional question if they need help getting past a particular challenge is far more helpful than solving their ‘problem’ for them.

Offer lots of different opportunities to learn new things as well. Visits to art galleries and museums are great, but simply going to a park or the beach and noticing things along the way can spark all sorts of ideas as well. Let your children ask lots of questions and ask them questions in return, although try to keep them open to avoid yes/no answers.

Keep a variety of different materials and toys available at home. This doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be as simple as keeping a container with empty cereal boxes, old magazines and newspapers, and other recyclable materials on hand along with some paper for drawing, pencils, textas, glue and scissors. You can often pick up packets of feathers, glitter glue and other craft materials quite cheaply at discount stores. Blocks and other building materials are good to have on hand as well along with items for playing dress-ups and make-believe games.

Have fun and be creative yourself. My children have reminded me how much fun it can be to be creative and imaginative in the way I approach problems and spend my time. You’re never too old to use your imagination!

Thanks Ursula and Susan for taking the time to answer my questions.

For more information about Ursula and her books, visit http://www.ursulakolbe.com.au. To purchase this book in Australia, contact the distributer Pademelon Press: email: info@pademelonpress.com.au,  phone: 02 4236 1881; web: http://www.pademelonpress.com.au or order through any bookshop in Australia.