Creative Childhood: How to Engage Your Kids So They Learn to Think Creatively

Mama Greenest interviews Sonya Shoptaugh, Creative Childhood blogger and Hudson Valley parenting expert

Last week I promised more from Sonya Shoptaugh, the inspiring Glenford-based mama behind Creative Childhood (, and so here you have it. An internationally recognized expert on early childhood education and design, Sonya has been interviewed by NPR, Newsweek, and now by Mama Greenest.

Sonya presents a workshop through Illuminated Baby at Fiber Flame in Saugerties, June 4, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Register at

How did you find your way to your blog and working as a childhood creativity consultant?
I guess it all starts with my parents and my own childhood. I give my folks credit for inspiring me to live life fully and follow my passions no matter where they take me. My mom is both very grounded and one who loves adventure. At age 40, she got her pilot’s license. At age 65, she went sky-diving. My dad is a game inventor who has many patents to his name. My home growing up was a research and development lab for toys and games. I lived the every day life of creativity.

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In college, I designed my own major called “The Child” then went to work at the Capital Children’s Museum where a preschool was just getting started for low income families [The Model Early Learning Center]. Our school had the incredible opportunity to develop a close connection with the Infant Toddler and Preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, now considered by many to be the best education system in the world for young children. I learned about the Reggio Emilia Approach directly from my colleagues in Reggio Emilia, and one teacher in particular who came and lived with us in Washington, DC. After that, I consulted around the country for many years until I started my own family.

child playing child playing

When my daughter was born, I turned my focus toward home. I’m a photographer and a writer, so I decided to start a project called, “the photo of the day” where I’d take a photo of my daughter and write something about it — then send it to family members. At first I had five people on my email list. Then 25. The number kept increasing. These photos and stories began going all over the world.

People seemed very interested to know more about what I was doing with my daughter, Reggio-inspired parenting I guess you could call it. So I started a blog and a Web site in order to share my experiences and support others in considering what is possible when we believe in the capabilities and creativity of young children, and ourselves as parents.

I now have a following in China and Australia, and in other parts of the world as well. Pretty amazing.

Why is creativity so important for young children?
Creativity is the heart and soul of childhood. Children are born researchers; their creativity is robust and it guides them to make meaning of the world around them. Have you ever observed a 10-month-old? They experiment nonstop with everything in their midst: touching, tasting, inventing games such as dropping stuff to see what happens. Curiosity motivates children to try out things they never have before. They approach life with creative confidence and competence.

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And during this phase of life, our brains are developing at a massive rate. By age three, our brains are 80% formed. Eighty percent! Isn’t that outrageous? This means our very early experiences are being hard-wired into us. Not only are we building knowledge, developing language, and forming relationships, but our ways of approaching life are being formed.

Our natural state of being is one of creativity. Over time, this quality of thought and way of being can either be nurtured or diminished based on our surroundings and what is valued by those who care for us. If we realize how being creative allows children to thrive, we can begin to enhance rather than inhibit their authentic approach to life.

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What are some simple ways parents can facilitate creativity at home?
Accept the premise of their play. If your child comes to you with a blob of play dough on her nose and says, “I’m a clown!” say back, “How do you do, Clown. I’m an elephant.” A circus has been born.

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Children invite us into their world of imagination all the time. It is unpredictable. It is not “correct.” It requires rules to be made up as you go along. When we value children’s ingenuity, we strengthen their natural born ability to create. We tell them through our actions their unique way of approaching life is welcome.

Ask children questions. Be curious to know what they think, and suspend your knowledge and correct-o-meter when they answer. Put yourselves in a place of wonderment and really hear their thoughts, their points of view. For example, last fall during a walk through brightly colored foliage, I asked my daughter how she thought the leaves change colors. She had an elaborate theory that involved vitamins from the air landing on the leaves. I asked follow up questions, and listened to her develop a well-articulated theory about fall.

Some parents get concerned — when will my child learn the “real” answer? Learning how to think is vastly more important than learning what to think. My daughter will learn some day (and then probably forget like most of us) how leaves change color in science class. But because I ask and value what she has to say now, she has the opportunity to develop her self-concept as one who has ideas, one who can be a generator of knowledge, not just a consumer of someone else’s facts.

Conversely, what should be avoided?
If a child comes to you with a blob of play dough on his nose and says, “I’m a clown!” Don’t say, “You look silly. Make sure you don’t eat that stuff. I see some on your lip there.” How often do we unknowingly squash our children’s creative impulse? Probably more than we realize.

When we don’t give children the opportunity to be absurd, do things differently than we might, or make mistakes in a safe emotional environment, we take away their chance to develop their own genius.

We — children and adults alike — shun our natural creativity and curiosity when we strive to get the right answer, or say and do what is expected of us in order to not be judged.

How do you stay inspired?
I hang around children. And adults who care about children. Right now my daughter, age four, is designing her own tree house. When I asked her how she wanted to get up to her tree house, she said, “By roller coaster!” Ha! Children give us the courage to venture into the unknown, the delight of the unexpected, and the mandate to experience joy again and again. It is hard not to be inspired by children’s approach to life!

If you could order parents to do one thing and one thing only with their children, what would it be?
Listen to your children with wide open ears and heart. Know they are brilliant just as they are. Allow their brilliance to shine.

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