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Steps toward creativity

You and your child could drive along in silence. You could punch the buttons on the radio, skipping from one terrible song to the next. Or you could play the "What If" game. As in, "What if you could change your name _ what would you choose?" "What if you could clone yourself?" "What if nobody had to work for a living?" "What if people could choose to change their sex easily, as often as they wanted to?"

The questions are Susan K. Perry's, from her new book, Playing Smart (Free Spirit Publishing, $12.95).

It's one example of how parents can make use of _ and have fun with _ their children while helping them cultivate creativity.

Perry, a Los Angeles educator and writer who has two sons, now 19 and 17, began using games to stretch her boys' minds when they were preschoolers. They're still at it.

When they're small, you can get a lot of mileage out of examining a leaf. When they're older, you move into more challenging activities. Perry likes exploring paradoxes with children. It has rubbed off. Recently, she writes, one son left this outgoing message on a friend's answering machine: "This is Kevin. I can't answer your call because I'm at home right now."

Many of the activities Perry suggests in her book came from her experience with her boys.

She recalls one project that was a big success: "We made a book of changes. We started when they were still preschoolers. We'd take a simple camera and walk around the block and take pictures of things that would change." A lot where a building was going up, a riverbed that was dry, a neighbor _ all were likely to be different a few months later. After some time, go back and take "after" pictures, to paste in beside the "before" shots.

Other suggestions from Perry:

Have your child close her eyes and imagine she is in a spaceship, a castle, a hot-dog factory. What does she see, hear, smell, taste, touch?

Help your child start a journal: Encourage him to record emotions about a problem, to write about what parents and friends mean to him or what makes him happy and sad, to record what he did today. A variation is a "scrapbook journal" _ photos, drawings and souvenirs share space with writings. Questions can include: What are you reading today? What's your favorite book? What do you eat on a typical day? _ Create "photo comics." The child thinks of a story (it doesn't have to be funny) and writes a script, then plans photos to illustrate it. Friends or family members act out the story while the child takes the photos. The photos are then arranged on heavy paper, dialogue added.

Visit a cemetery. Talk about how names evolved from people's occupations; locate the gravestones with the most recent dates, and the oldest; note what diseases caused death; figure out how many people died during childbirth and how many died in childhood.

Make an event out of a walk. Go at an unusual time _ before others are up, or late in the evening. Or go on a "what's wrong" walk _ find things along the way that need to be fixed or changed. On a "what's right" walk, find pleasing scenes or objects.

Have some fun with excuses. Encourage children to come up with clever excuses such as "I didn't do the dishes because there were sharks in the sink."

Older children can observe the psychological dynamics of others. After a visit to a store or other public place, talk about the exchanges you saw. Who was being bossed around? Who was the boss? Did the employees act the way with customers they would with their families?

Have a "positive week." Whenever a negative thought enters your mind, make it positive.

If a child resists an idea for a game or project, drop it, Perry says. "If it feels like a task, you're not doing it right," Perry says. "Go on to something else. It should be fun."