Raising Creativity: Lessons from Mary Poppins

August 18, 2017

Creativity makes lives better, happier and healthier.                                 

Hi, I’m Elizabeth Chapman. Mom to Elsie, Emma and Doren Chapman. My daughters approached me with the topic “How do you foster creativity in children?” as over the years they have often been asked by many of their friends how they were raised to be creative. I think this may be on Elsie’s mind too as she approaches parenthood. 

As I thought about this topic, it became more and more interesting to me as I realized that the truth is, I never set out to raise creative kids. While I would always have described myself as a creative person—even majoring and graduating with an art education degree—I placed all that on the back burner when we decided to start a family. As I held our first born daughter, Elsie, in my arms that very first time I remember thinking, “Oh my, what do I do? How do you do this!?” Overwhelmed by the task ahead, what came to my mind was to just love her and all the rest of it would work itself out. There would be two more kids, Emma and Doren, to be raised with this same philosophy. And I am grateful and so happy to say that this method worked. And good news, it’s pretty simple: lots of love!! We spent a lot of time at home making stuff out of whatever, playing, laughing, and doing things together while building our relationships. I was very protective of how we spent our time as I felt family was foremost. Sometimes love needs space to live and grow. And it was important to me that an environment was created where the children felt loved, safe, and confident in being themselves. In reflecting back on these times, I have found it so interesting that it was love that nurtured and raised creative kids, and not about anything that I did in particular.

Millennial mom's understand the importance of creativity for their children

So if you just want the Cliff Notes version, that’s it. Love first and a lot of it. But if you want more, let’s consider a profound piece of art: the film Mary Poppins. 

What?!! Yes, that is right … Mary Poppins! (By the way, if you haven’t watched this movie, stop reading now and do!)

I have come to understand the influence that movies and TV can have on a child during their formative years. Believe me, it can be very deep and far-reaching. Mary Poppins so fascinated my mind that it would become much of how I one day would raise my kids. Be careful of what you allow your kids to watch! Because they just might grow up to think or believe like those childhood movies. For me, it was the big screen back in about 1967 and I LOVED this movie. I must have gone to the movies to see it about 6-7 times in one year. I had the bag and the umbrella with the parrot. I found that if you opened the umbrella out the car window as you were going down the road, you got the feeling of flying! (Although looking back I’m sure this was a terrible idea.) I was impressed with how Mary made things fun, they all played together, laughed together, spent time as a family, and there was art and music all around them. Sound familiar? I hope so, because that sounds like such a great place to grow up to me. So that’s exactly what I tried to create for my children.

Let’s get actionable. Here are five parenting lessons from Mary Poppins:

1. Make it FUN!!!

One of the first things that the children do together is a scene where they are cleaning their room. Nobody really wants to clean the room. Mary says to them, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and SNAP the job’s a game!” She proceeds to sing the song “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and before you know it they are having such a good time and the toys are all in their place. Off they march to the next activity.

Having fun and keeping things childlike is such an important element to being a creative person (for children AND adults alike). Children naturally have SO many ideas and are inspired by nearly everything. It’s all around and it’s free! They love experiencing things. As a parent, you have the opportunity to allow them to have exposure and experiment/play with all kinds of materials and activities. All of these experiences become a foundation for them to draw from later. It is in the process that the learning is taking place, not from the end result. Oftentimes, I believe we get so wrapped up in the end goal that we miss sight of the process—which should be FUN. Find ways to have fun and enjoy everything that you do—even chores like cleaning a room.

2. Messes are a part of real life.

In the chimney sweep scene, Mary seems a bit upset with the children getting dirty, but then she decides to join them and even gets a bit dirty herself. She chooses her battles wisely. They can always get cleaned up later, but this opportunity may not come again. Children (and adults) need to feel unconstrained and free to create without having to worry about the mess that creating makes. By the way, this applies to SO many  areas of creating and not just “art.” Think about cooking, sewing, gardening, etc. There is so much beauty and originality that is born from messes. Plus, it teaches us how to clean! I am an abstract artist and when I paint it doesn’t always look pretty as I go through various stages, but I realize that it’s part of it.

As a parent, do your best not to instill shame over creative messes. They are necessary for growth. Seeing the mess can help you to understand that sometimes creativity is chaotic. Sometimes it looks terrible during the process, but you gotta keep working through it. It helps you to feel OK with change, a very valuable skill when you become an adult. Messes need to be embraced as a part of the process and not just a bad obstacle to overcome. Get messy on purpose and dance on the roof! (Although maybe not literally unless your roof is as safe as Mr. Banks’.)

3. Support and encouragement.

Oh my, what has happened to Mr. Banks?! He has changed from being a rigid, distant and grumpy father figure at the beginning of the movie to a relaxed, involved and happy dad. Throughout the movie, Mary has been teaching the importance of loving, supporting and encouraging your children. His attitude has changed so much as can be seen in how he now reacts and responds to the children with love rather than strictness in the scene “Let’s Go Fly a Kite!” Through the song that he sings, we get the idea that he believes that we can soar to new heights by trading in tuppence for paper and strings.

Creativity thrives and grows with encouragement. It’s like what water and sunshine are to seed. They will just naturally grow with the proper amount. It’s important to always be looking for the positive and bringing those to light, rather than the negative. Criticism does so much more harm than we realize. I do understand its place, but be careful. We naturally want to do better and do it again when we are being told how good we are doing. I’m a working artist today because of a mentor that told me how much she loved my first pieces.  Every one of them! When I paint, I have learned to ignore those first negative thoughts which go something like this … it’s terrible, nobody is going to like it, you can’t put that color with that, etc. I know to push through and not quit because it’s part of getting to that space where I will be making decisions without fear.  Children don’t know to do this and so they need to be continually supported. Encouraging and not criticizing creates a culture of love over fear. Unconditional love. And not the constant feeling that whatever they create must be pleasing or “successful” in some way. They should feel as if every idea they come up with is “the best” or AT LEAST worth exploring and that they can do anything and soar to new heights!

Projects should often be just that: a project and not an achievement. They don’t always have to achieve something (a good grade, a painting worthy of hanging on the wall, a useful object, etc.) when they create. Making things should be done simply for the enjoyment of the making. Think of it like an exercise for your creative muscle. Making with no expectations takes the pressure off and allows freedom to grow without constantly feeling like you need to be successful. Fortunately and thankfully, we were unknowingly doing these things. If I had to pick just one lesson over all the others, it would be this one. Support and encouragement are so important to nurturing the growth of creativity.

4. Nurturing differences.

“I Love to Laugh.” In this Mary Poppins scene, we find Bert explaining to the children that “some laugh like this and others like that.” The point he is making is that we are all different. They realize that it’s OK to be different and join in with the laughing. As things lighten up, they begin to float up towards the ceiling. Mary goes along with it all and they end up having a real good time together, being weird.

Being different or “weird” is all a part of being a creative person. Original thoughts and ideas don’t happen by always trying to be like everyone else, but by standing out. Children naturally come up with original thoughts and ideas. They should feel as if it’s OK to be different and still have love and support from home.

Our kids were allowed to be different. They bought and remade thrift store clothes, cut, styled and colored their hair, rooms were repainted with different themes every year and one year they even planned our family vacation. (That is a whole other story!) We allowed them to feel as if being different or “weird” was totally OK and maybe even a little bit cool! They were never afraid to be who they were because they knew they had love and support at home grounding them, and everything else could be figured out without fear.

I know they must have wondered if I wasn’t afraid that they might be made fun of or that they wouldn’t fit in at school. Honestly, I didn’t see these things as the real worries. There were by far a lot worse things to be getting into. They were busy designing, creating, and having fun together. It’s important to not try to fit them into a mold, but to have faith in them that they will make good choices. Respect individuality.

5. Sensitivity.

Let’s get emotional! A big shift in our emotions occurs as the movie directs us to the bird woman scene. It’s seems the movie goes from happy, happy, happy to a feeling of sadness. It has been described as the most emotional scene in the movie. There is wisdom and something to learn in the words that Mary sings about the bird woman. They go something like this: “Though her words are simple and few, listen, listen” and “Feed the birds, show them you care. All it takes is tuppence.”

Important aspects to creativity is having empathy, being sensitive, thoughtful and caring toward others. In turn, we will project this into our work, giving it a personal, original voice that is universal in nature. A type of communication that needs no words. There are no language barriers. It is understood by all. We have all been created to be sensitive people. It’s OK to have emotions. Children should never be made to feel as if it’s a shameful thing. Giving allowance for these feelings can help us to grow into more empathetic people.

Questions that might be used in order to instill, bring these to the surface and be able to talk about them might be something along the lines like, “How do you think it feels to be …?” or “What would you think if you had …?” or “How do you think we could help?” or “What is wrong, why are you acting like this today?” Learning to love other begins at home with loving ourselves and each other. My granddaughter has a favorite phrase that is music to my ears because it shows that she is learning to think of others. “Sharing is caring.” Simple words.

By Elizabeth Chapman. Photography: Elsie Larson and Emma Chapma

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