“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.
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.”
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!
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?