Today's lesson: don't work, just have fun

The final episode of our series looks beyond the curriculum to the creative arts. The golden rule, says Meg Carter, is to enjoy yourself
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The Independent Online

Unfetter children's imagination, encourage them to play with their minds and to use their hands, and they will thrive. As any parent knows, children love to dress up, to act out little scenes for general delectation, to paint, make sculptures and sing.

Yet these are things that children often do, not because of but in spite of school. This is partly because creativity cuts across the curriculum. But it is also because so much of schooling stifles creative expression when it should be giving rein to it. Maybe it's something to do with the fact that creativity is about breaking free and not sticking to rules, which, of course, is the key to its appeal.

Look at the national curriculum and you'd be forgiven for thinking creativity barely features at all. Of art, drama and music only music appears in Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 – as a non-core foundation subject, of course. Art and drama, meanwhile, are optional "extras". Yet the creative spark each of these subjects can ignite in a child can also lead to an enjoyment of other more "serious" subjects as diverse as languages, history and classics.

All good teachers acknowledge the broader relevance of these so-called "extras" in achieving a full and rounded education. And children are chomping at the bit to engage in the creative stuff in the face of greater testing and growing workloads. All of which gives parents a fail-safe opportunity to get their kids fired up over the summer break.

One of the challenges for parents wanting to tap their children's creativity is not to end up producing the opposite result by overly influencing them with their own tastes. Another is knowing when a child needs constructive guidance and support, and – particularly relevant for older children – when to back off.

According to Bernice Holmes, head of art at Lady Margaret's School in south-west London, the best way of turning a child on to art – be it drawing, painting or modelling – is to show them what they are capable of doing. "It's extremely hard to motivate a child if they are unable to see what the possible outcome could be," she says. "By visiting local galleries, or simply showing your child pictures of art from books or one of the many artists' web sites, you can inspire interest. The critical factor is your own enthusiasm."

Music is an important part of everyone's identity and, according to Professor Graham Welch, head of music education at London University's Institute of Education, it is important – as with other areas of creativity – to let your child's tastes and preferences evolve rather than simply emulate your own.

This is currently the focus of much research, explains Professor Welch. "Numerous studies show that all of us – musicians or not – have a number of very different musical types that make up who we are. That's why it is very difficult for parents to inculcate their children into a particular musical genre, and why so many of us have a diverse range of musical tastes which we dip into according to where we are, what we are doing and how we feel."

The older your child, the harder it will be to indoctrinate them into your musical tastes – so don't try. "Far more constructive – for both of you – is to develop a dialogue with them about what they like, and why," he says. "Have a shared music session. Demonstrate your musical tastes to each other, discuss what you like and why."

Such open-minded behaviour is also needed for turning children on to drama. "There are definitely things parents can do – especially with younger children, as the root of all drama is imaginative play," believes Paul Sutton, director of C&T, a children's theatre group based at University College Worcester. "But parents must remember that a child can make huge imaginative leaps – something it is all too easy for an adult to forget when they think of drama in grown-up terms such as the theatre and the stage," he adds. "And they must set aside any fears that they are not up to it because they're not creatively-minded, musical or artistic. It's easy to forget where the word 'play' comes from. Yet kids are the best at play, and do so intuitively."

The business of how to tap your child's creativity will change with age. As a child's interest and ability grow, he or she will seek to develop harder skills, and greater expertise may be needed to support that. But according to Sarah Hennessy, music/programme director, primary education at the University of Exeter, research into creativity shows that self-teaching is significantly more important for growing children than it is for the development of other skills.

"It's about more than plodding along to a specialist teacher each week," she says. "Observation, imitation and learning through both are an important part of developing creativity."

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