The other night, I’m giving my almost-two-year-old a bath, and he is playing with bath paints (thank-you, #targetdollarbin). Instead of smearing the paint on the sides of the tub or doing anything “artistic,” the way he wants to play with his paint is for me to drizzle it on his toes, look at it, scream “toes!” and then swish his toes in the water.

I kept trying to show him how to smear the paint on his hand, tummy, side of the tub, anything to help him use the paint “the right way” but he was not interested. Two emptied tubes of paint later, we had no artwork to speak of, chunks of paint floating in the tub, and a happy boy.

This prompted me to consider:

Does it matter if my child plays with toys “the right way”?


Do trains have to chug, do blocks have to be towers, does he NEED to stack the rings from largest to smallest? I know that toys are designed with developmental milestones in mind, but when does going “off book” have value?

As I dug up some research to help me decide if this matters, I stumbled across the idea of Creative Elaboration.

Creative Elaboration = Elaboration is the process of enhancing ideas by providing more detail. Additional detail and clarity improves interest in, and understanding of, the topic.

A standard measuring Creativity, called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, are backed by analysis over the course of several decades, begun by E. Paul Torrance in the late 1950s. Researchers during this era were especially interested in identifying giftedness in children. Torrance chose, instead of focusing on intellect, to hone in on Creative ability and his studies have shown that this is actually the best predictor of future success.

“In the real world few questions have one right answer, few problems have one right solution; that’s why creativity is crucial to success in the real world.”*

So, if I’m understanding this research right, gloppy paint rather than paint-by-numbers may help nurture my child’s creative ability. Let the cars fly! Let the kites be boats! Play in the cardboard box the toy came in! Fewer “shoulds” may just unleash our children to explore the world with wide-eyed curiosity.