Raising Creativity: Lessons from Mary Poppins

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.

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.

Thank you for letting me share some parenting lessons with you. I feel like I have more to say, but I’d also be really curious what all you parents or soon-to-be parents out there might be wondering. Do you have anything specific you’d like to hear more about or have questions? I would love to hear questions and would love to hear about things you learned from your parents growing up. – Elizabeth

Credits // Author: Elizabeth Chapman. Photography: Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman. Photos of our nieces are from “Aunt Elsie’s summer camp,” which you can read more about here. 🙂
  • This article brought happy tears to my eyes! It reminded me so much of my own mom, who used many of the same ideas to encourage my imagination growing up. Loved loved loved hearing your perspective on how Elsie and Emma became the creative chicks they are! Xo

  • Could not agree more with all of the above!! I studied early childhood and now have two boys of my own and they always stressed “process over product” when it came to art and activities and I have always loved that and in turn have used that a lot with my boys not just specifically with art but life in general. We tend to have a lot of rituals that we do everyday as a family (walks after dinner, going a certain place on the weekends, etc) and we always try to listen to their ideas. I think just creating a safe loving environment is key. Your girls have done such a great job showing others how to create a beautiful and creative space and life and I know for a fact my home has become such a place that reflects our family and embraces all that we do and is important to us and that’s definitely something that will stick with all of us. I think taking risks and chances and knowing that it will be okay if you “fail” is what it’s all about. Great hearing what you have to say and you are killing that purple hair ?

  • Just beautiful; I cried a good cry after reading this. I have two babies, and my oldest is going to be 5 tomorrow (wahhh). Looking back on these last (quick!) few years, I’ve been pondering on what I can do to make myself and our home better for both of my children. I feel this article was very much needed. Bless you for your kind, encouraging and wise words to a mother of two young children. In a world where only the best is to be seen, home truly should be a place to let your hair down, let the messes fly and let the laughter ring.

  • Elizabeth, I don’t think you could have said it better. I am truly touched. What a special and wonderful post! I will tuck everything you wrote above deeply in my heart for momhood in the future and being the best auntie I can be now.

  • I constantly worry about this with my 7 month old. I want her to be a caring loving free spirited girl like my parents did me, and I am so afraid of screwing her up.

  • What a lovely heartwarming post! If you two aren’t proof enough of how this sort of creative (and love-filled) parenting is the key to raising happy, inspired, capable, and independent humans, I don’t know what is.
    And, for the record, I so agree with your mama. I used to be an art teacher as well as a child behaviorist and can definitely attest to everything she shared, from a professional standpoint. Especially the love part, above all♄

  • You are the beautiful person I thought you were. I am so glad you shared this part of your parental life. My story came from “To Sir with Love”.

  • What a beautiful post! I love this so much. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on inspiring creativity ❀

  • Though not a Mom myself, I so appreciate this post to share with my friends who have kids, especially those who really march to the beat of their own drum. No matter if you are four or forty-four, there’s something to appreciate about this post that can apply at any age. Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for sharing your wisdom, fun Mary Poppins references, and pics of your kids from way back.

    This is my favorite blog post yet- great job!!

  • I love love LOVE your post! It reminds me so much of how I grew up and how I want to/hope I am raising my two bambinos. I’ve been trying to work on the “get dirty” part; my control issues often get in the way. I like the visual of Mary’s soot-covered face – I’ll think of her when I feel myself trying to clean instead of enjoying the moment with them. Thank you 🙂

  • How did you manage time for yourself and your own creativity, coupled with parenting? I have three girls (all under 6) and find that- if I’m honest- sometimes between work and home, loving them to the best of my ability often means sacrificing my own “me” time (think Liz Lemon trying to “have it all..”). Did you put some things aside when the kids were little? Intuitively, im guessing this piece ebbs and flows as kids grow into school and their own ability to free play. But still curious to hear your thoughts.

    • Good question.It sounds to me like you are doing an awesome job “loving them to the best of my ability”…and three of them under 6!! It’s true,there are sacrifices to be made, but that is a part of making decisions as to what you feel is best for your family or really with anything for that matter. I understand what your saying about finding time for yourself and that should not be a sacrifice. I did find “me” time while they were napping,(might be my nap too!) playing together and then yes of course later, school. My creative outlets were different then more centered around family, sewing, cooking and gardening. I was also fortunate to have had a mother-in-law who loved spending time with the kids on weekends. It is very important to take care of yourself and find/have support from family or others.Hope this helps. Enjoy those kids!!

  • I found this article to be so sweet and applicable to my art classroom. I do not have children of my own yet, but being a first year teacher I found that your advice can whole heartedly be applied to my classroom in every way.
    Is an added bonus that Mary Poppins was my absolute favorite movie as a child, I wore out quite a few VHS tapes!
    Thank you for this tidbit of wisdome

    • As a former art teacher this makes me SO happy to hear. Be careful though, the classroom is different than your own family. Establishing discipline(rules) is important as you begin your school year and especially your first. Always much easier to loosen these up later than it is to line it out. You will be in a perfect position to nurture creativity. Hope you have a school year filled with much love and lasting memories! Have fun!

  • Do you have any specific tips for growing self awareness and managing fighting among siblings?

    • Not an expert her, but I really believe self awareness will grow out of being loved. Unless someone could get hurt, I personally feel it’s better to allow them to work things out among themselves. It’s all a part of the process!

  • As I sit around and look at all the creative “messes” after reading this, I won’t clean them up tonight. Thank you for the lesson, because tomorrow my daughter will pick right back up where she left off and masterpieces will unfold!

  • Fellow art school graduate here, loving this article immensely. I love that Elsie and Emma asked you to speak about this aspect of their endless creativity. “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.” This resonates with me deeply and reminds me of my own mother. We’ve spent hundreds of hours creating things together, and are now business partners running a vintage shop too! She is my best friend, greatest supporter, biggest blessing. Hug and kiss to an amazing mom from the daughter of another amazing mother. xoxox

  • I LOVED this article you wrote Mrs. Chapman! I don’t plan to have kids but my mother raised a creative child and everything you noted, she did! Started with love, made everything fun and encouraged my creativity and individuality. Thank you so much for writing this!

  • Thank you for this post!

    I’m not a parent but I growing up, I was always curious as to why my little cousin was always bored, always. I remember her saying that since she was 4-5 years old, “I’m bored” and she had toys/television/etc. So my question is, if you can talk about this topic in a future post maybe, is how do you deal with that? How do you stimulate a child to do things, to try things, to get dirty and be curious? I always played by myself so I guess I had that ability in me, but I’ve always wondered why, being in the same family although 12 years apart, she couldn’t find ways to ‘entertain’ herself on her own. I’d like to have tools/know how to deal with something similar for future reference. Thank you.

  • Such a beautiful post. I am a long time visitor to Abeautifulmess and first time commenter 😉 I have two daughters (Elizabeth & Emily) and these words were very much needed right now. I have struggled as a young mom to be less rigid and more encouraging to my beautiful creative kiddos. Thank you for your words, Elizabeth, they are truly inspiring to me as a mommy.

  • Such wonderful advice!! My philosophy with raising my two boys is very similar. My #1 priority was to shower them with unconditional love so that they felt safe to be themselves. My own mom, who I love, was really critical of my brother and me when we were kids in an attempt to make us more successful, and it was really damaging to our self esteem. I’m still working all that out on an emotional level and I’m happy to say that it didn’t completely dampen my creativity.

    Thanks for this post!

  • Elizabeth, I was absolutely thrilled to see you on the blog. Wonderful words to share here, all clearly from the heart. I have written several times asking that you be featured, and here you are! I love your artwork and would like to have you write about your painting, your studio, and your process. (You set this whole “Mess” in motion, it seems!) As a Baby Boomer who is a faithful ABM daily reader, I would enjoy an occasional blog entry geared toward those of us whose 20’s and 30’s are already in the rearview mirror but still lead interesting, creative lives. As a mom of two girls myself (plus four granddaughters!), I can imagine the pride you feel. Hope to see you here again soon!

    • I’m happy to hear this and would love to be back on. We’ll have to see what happens as the winds change!! Perhaps I can bring art supplies in my Mary Poppin’s bag next time! Thank you for having requested me and your kinds word. Touches my heart. Best.

      • How nice of you to respond, Elizabeth! As coincidence would have it, we are going to a stage performance of “Mary Poppins” tonight. My daughter is the choreographer and one of our “granddogs”, Coco, is making her stage debut. Have a wonderful weekend, and hope to see you here again soon!

  • I absolutely loved reading this! I’m now going to rewatch Mary Poppins again (it’s been about 20 years ?) Thank you for sharing your wisdom, truly inspiring and I couldn’t agree more with everything you wrote! thanks Elizabeth!

  • Elizabeth, this is one of the BEST pieces of parenting advice I have ever read. Like you, I am mom to 3 girls, ages 10, 7 and 4. They are all unique individuals already. I loved the paragraph you began with “As a parent, do your best not to instill shame over creative messes.” I have discovered that this is one of MY biggest hang-ups – the messy part of being creative. My 7 year old daughter, Lucy, loves to draw, paint, cut up paper. I find that it takes a lot for me to reign it in and not discourage her from making messes… with all 3 of my girls actually! We recently lost my mother-in-law and our girls are taking it hard. What you wrote has really resonated with me. Art can be very healing, if nurtured properly, and I love how you tied it all to Mary Poppins. When I was younger, I babysat for a young family with 3 boys, and Mary Poppins was their FAVORITE movie! I probably watched it at least 100 times. So now, I’m going to get my hands on a copy and watch it with my girls for the first time. Maybe they will learn to love cleaning up after themselves too! Thank you again Elizabeth. Your daughters are so blessed to call you Mom.

  • I love this post! So much fun to hear advice from Elsie and Emma’s mom. About the third lesson : do you have some piece of advice about teaching children how to accept criticism? I often see children who have trouble with that and I am wondering how to find a balance between always supporting and encouraging them, and also teaching them how to fail and how to accept to be criticized in order to progress and grow.
    Could you tell us the time the kids planned the family vacation? I so want to hear that story, seems so much fun!!
    xo from Paris, France 🙂
    (btw, sorry if my english is not perfect)

    • Good point. It wasn’t my intent to come across as if there should never be criticism. Constructive criticism is needed. I believe the difference is in how it is delivered. What I mean by that is that it should be done with kindness and love. I love the way my son handles it with his daughter. He most always says, I love you, but…(fill in with what your needing to correct here). Failure should be looked upon as part of the process. I think that if there finding unconditional love at home they’re not bothered so much by failures accepting them easier. The kid planned family vacation…it’s the 90’s, we are from the Ozarks Elsie is 15, Emma 12, Doren 9, we pack up all our camping gear to go to a four day christian rock festival. Cornerstone in Peoria, Illinois which is not far from Chicago. I envision it being quiet,camping and quality family time. We arrive and there is 10,000 teenagers and young adults with the weirdest hair styles, tattoos and piercings. We were frightened! My husband turns to the girls and tells them “you all are sticking with us’. It began raining as we were setting up our tents, fortunate to have found a spot and it is rock band loud! It didn’t take us long to find that is was safe and these people turned out to be the kindest, most respectful, loving kind. It was amazingly clean too, no trash being thrown out. We totally let the girls run around on their own and it turned out to be a great time and a big lesson learned on judging according to outwardly appearances. Thanks for you input!

  • Thank you for posting this-You have raised such exceptionally creative daughters so your wisdom is appreciated! I have 2 young daughters and am taking this advice to heart! Being creative myself, I have hopes that it will continue with them but I think it’s important to be somewhat intentional when it comes to exposing our children. Plus, I love to use the words “wonderfully weird”!

  • I loved this article! It was moving and light and the most enjoyable thing I’ve read in a while. As a creative person currently raising two little girls I think about fostering creativity, empathy, and individuality at least once a day. Thank you for sharing.

  • Too beautiful… Thanks Mrs Chapman! Really took this to heart!

    Hope to see more blogs from you in future!

  • Thank you for such an insightful post! I very much agree with all your points! I am not a mother yet, but when that day comes, I hope to foster confidence, creativity, kindness, and awareness in my children. Thank you for the inspiration! Hope to see you back!

  • I absolutely adore this post! As an aspiring teachers, one of the things i love doing is finding inspirations in literature/film – Miss Honey is my number one 🙂 Just last week, incdentally, i used Mary as an example for “making jobs fun” to my mum and this brought it all back. Such a lovely read, thank-you!

    Bumble and Be

  • ohhhh how this post warms my heart. what a beautiful and loving mother you are elizabeth! i did not get that growing up, but i look to women like you for inspiration for my future family!

  • It’s an honor to hear your take on parenting – it brought tears to my eyes. I started following your daughters’ blog when I was 14, 8 years ago! It’s the only blog I’ve followed religiously for years and it opened my horizon and served as an example for how I wish to live and conduct myself. Thank you for this post and raising amazing children who inspire thousands of people everyday.