Let it Go to Let it Grow

“What a great job you’re doing on that tower!” I said to my three-year-old son, my enthusiasm rivaling a rock concert crowd.

CRASH! In an instant, he sent blocks flying across the room. Not for fun, but in a rage.

What was his message to me? Hmm. He wasn’t able to tell me in words. I didn’t figure it out till a few days later, when he was building another tower.

This time I said nothing, but tip-toed by. After he was done, I merely commented, “You played with your blocks a long time today. One tower rose much taller than the others. But it didn’t tip over.”

He started talking about his building experience, quite satisfied with a day’s work.

What was going on? Read on, and I think you’ll see.


Kaia’s Artwork

I’ve seen similar reactions in other kids after grown-up praise, though not as extreme. I should’ve known better, especially after teaching art for so many years.

I started the middle and high school art program at a small private school in Milwaukee in the 1980s. My engagement with students affirmed much of what I’d read regarding proper responses to students’ artwork. Later, I was able to transfer that to parenting. Of course, I still messed up now and then.

Earlier, I quoted Picasso:

“Every child is an artist.
The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
–Pablo Picasso

Fostering creativity is not so much trying to conjure up something that doesn’t exist. It’s trying to keep alive what’s already there.

So how do we as parents (or grandparents) or teachers keep from inadvertently squashing that inherent artist?

Four Things that Encourage our Children to Embrace the Creative Process
and Let their Imaginations Flourish

1) Plenty of open-ended tools & materials

Have on hand a variety of basic art materials: paper, crayons, colored pencils, markers, scissors, glue, tape, tagboard, oil pastels, paint, paintbrushes, etc.

But also provide miscellaneous objects, ones not designated for a particular thing. This includes pipe cleaners, buttons, yarn, fabric scraps, sequins, foil, egg cartons, match boxes, and coffee filters, for starters. Dig through your recyclables and keep anything that might spark a kid’s imagination.

More 3-D items for collage or sculpture are seeds, beans, pasta, rice, lids, spools, tubes, paper fasteners, shells, straws, feathers, etc.

The more accessible the materials, the more likely your child will use them, the more comfortable he’ll be with them, and the more confident he’ll grow.


2) Plenty of time and space

Most people can’t create under pressure, or when tired or rushed. Kids don’t need to be “programmed” all the time. They need unstructured time to observe, think, and wonder. They need time away from screens and tech devices. They need a space of their own to create in, one that is not necessarily under the house rules of cleanliness. Say YES to the mess!

3) The right amount of guidance (and knowing when to back off)

Sometimes kids need practical instruction about how to use materials or do proper clean up. But after they know the basics, back off. Let them create what they want. There are many artistic solutions to a problem, not just one. Let your child discover for himself.

There’s no contest, no deadline, no audience, no pressure.
This is art for its own sake.
Let go of control in order to let your child’s imagination grow.
Simply put, Let it Go to Let it Grow!

Colin’s & Kaia’s Artwork

4) The most helpful feedback

This point is important enough to merit its own points. The bottom line is that we want our children to enjoy art. To embrace the process, to gain skills, knowledge, and confidence. And to find fulfillment and pleasure in what they’ve created. This all serves as a basis for future endeavors, whether in art or not.

Have you figured out yet why my son had such two disparate reactions to my comments on his work? It has to do with Point #4: The most helpful feedback.

Next time, I’ll elaborate on feedback. I’ll share do’s and don’ts regarding the best ways to respond to your child’s artistic process.

Regarding point 3, when did you give or receive too much guidance for a project? What happened?

Ever musing,


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8 thoughts on “Let it Go to Let it Grow

  1. I would say that I definitely tend towards too much guidance because I hate a huge mess in an otherwise clean kitchen! Especially when my oldest two (both girls) were young, I sat with them as they did projects and never let them get too messy. However, as they’ve gotten older, I’ve given them a lot more freedom. Our family has a tradition of making each other homemade gifts for Christmas and sometimes for birthdays, and My second daughter loves making gifts. I often find snippets of string, paper scraps, tape, glue, fabric and all sorts of other things all over the house, particularly at Christmastime, but she creates the most beautiful gifts (things that I would have been proud to make). And so I rarely chastise her very much for the messes. I love seeing the creativity in her soul.

    1. Beautiful that you can look past the mess into her creative soul! Kids come up with the most thoughtful and innovative gifts when given some free reign. But it is difficult sometimes to put up with messes. I’m thinking of a time when my own girls and I made bubblegum from a kit somebody gave up and we literally ended up with some flour-type substance on every square inch of the kitchen, including the ceiling! It was awful! I was fit to be tied, but the girls had a blast. It was a gift well-used and appreciated . . . more by them!

  2. “Fostering creativity is not so much trying to conjure up something that doesn’t exist. It’s trying to keep alive what’s already there.”

    That is a profound statement! I can remember one time when I unintentionally crushed a student’s spirit with my reaction to his project. That was a slip up I will never forget. The good thing is that when I became a professor in the teacher preparation program I was able to incorporate that experience into my classes as an example of poor instructional practice. Thanks for sharing this post! I am looking forward to reading your perspectives on feedback!

    1. Oh, my, I can relate to crushing a student’s spirit. Even when inadvertent, there’s no way to take back the words or the damage done. At least by using it as negative example for your other students to learn from, you are preventing more spirit-crushing.

  3. I really appreciate the concept of “the right amount of guidance (and knowing when to back off).” Getting that balance can be hard, but usually I look for what the end goal is. If they’re just having fun and experimenting, I open the floodgate of art supplies and let them have at it.
    But sometimes giving that “right amount of guidance,” their creativity can soar even higher

    A good example: my mom.
    In 2nd grade, we were supposed to create a recipe. Anything we wanted. Some kids wrote one for a witches’ brew, some for a fantasmagorical sandwich.
    I wanted to make one for real brownies. Brownies that I could really make and enjoy. So I wrote out the ingredients, including five cups of sugar. (Yeah, a diabetic’s nightmare)
    When Mom read it, she told me that was way too much sugar for brownies, that I could write it that way if I wanted, but that I couldn’t really make it in her kitchen because she couldn’t afford that much sugar wasted.
    I adapted the recipe to a more suitable sucrose level. It was still my creation, but actually edible 🙂 It’s a recipe I still enjoy making today.

    I don’t always get the balance right of guidance and freedom with my own kids, but I often think of that brownie recipe as a good example.

    1. The brownies probably wouldn’t have even stuck together with 5 cups of sugar! Fun that you can still enjoy today a recipe that you made in 2nd grade!

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