My husband and I brought our three-year-old daughter to his company’s family picnic at the park. One of the children’s activities was to decorate T-shirts with tubes of paint. My daughter was given a white T-shirt and we sat at the picnic table together. I was utterly amazed when all the parents began showing their children how they should design a T-shirt by painting it themselves. There was not one parent who would trust a child to decorate his own T-shirt; the adults completely dominated. “Let’s put a sun over here. And now I’ll write your name.” Was it because it was a T-shirt and not just a piece of paper? Was a T-shirt too valuable to leave in the hands of a three-, four-, five-, six- and even seven-year-old? Would the child’s creation not be ‘good enough?’
The end result of this spontaneous experiment was illuminating. The T-shirts were hung out to dry in a tree. None of the children showed the slightest interest in the finished T-shirts. The parents retrieved them after they had dried, but the children could not have cared less. They had contributed nothing to the shirts and felt no ownership.
Meanwhile, my daughter sat completely absorbed as she took a tube of paint and squeezed it to make a short vertical drip on her T-shirt. Young children are more inclined to experiment with the mechanics of art materials than they are to conjure up a design. She chose another color and made another line on her shirt. Immersed in this process, she made one line after another, each with a different tube of paint.
She and I lingered, long after the other children, who had watched their parents paint designs on T-shirts, had left the table. There were just a few latecomers left. When my daughter finally finished she admired her work and said thoughtfully, “I’m an artist.” “Yes, you are,” I replied. A parent across from us smiled at me in a conspiratorial and slightly demeaning way.
We hung the T-shirt up to dry and my daughter wanted to check on it twenty minutes later. At the end of the company picnic, she proudly took it home.
This event was a profound lesson for me, and it reinvigorated my belief that children are best left to direct their artistic endeavors. There is little reason for a child to be involved in an art project if it’s not produced by the child. When we well-meaningly demonstrate our own creative talents for our toddlers we risk making them feel incapable, discouraged and disinterested. Our children need to be trusted to participate, not only in art projects but in all the activities they encounter, to the furthest extent of their capabilities.
Jackie shared her success:
“Thank you for encouraging me to refrain from helping my very particular and easily frustrated daughter with her drawings. She just turned 3 and drew this dog this morning- and it’s amazing! So realistic and not a simple, “kiddy” style dog at all.”
You might ask, “What’s wrong with showing my child how to correctly use a paintbrush?” Well, it shortcuts her exploration, thus limiting her creativity, and ( if she is often shown how to play “correctly”) it may eventually erode her trust in herself, her desire to be an active explorer, and her willingness and ability to work things out for herself. Children quickly come to look to adults to show them or tell them “the right way to play,” and even to do it for them. – Lisa Sunbury,”What Is Play?”
More in Don’t Move the Muffin Tins by renowned educator Bev Bos
(Noelle and Jackie, thank you for allowing me to share your beautiful photos!)
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