elevating child care

Are You Putting The Kibosh On Creativity?

Artists know that trusting their instincts is essential for creativity to flourish. Likewise, if we don’t offer this trust to our children, it’s far less likely they’ll learn to trust themselves enough to enjoy art or fulfill their creative potential.
For young children, play and arts-and-crafts are the same thing. Both are inherently educational opportunities for self-directed exploration, freedom of expression and fun.  Toddlers and preschoolers aren’t looking to make something that looks “good” to anyone else. They couldn’t care less if their creation looks finished like it’s “supposed to”, or resembles anything in particular.  Like most artists, young children run on instinct and create just to please themselves. They live in the moment, revel in the process, while learning and developing self-confidence.

So why is it so hard to let them be?

Hi Janet, 

In Jasper’s art class this morning, they made suns out of clay, beads, and yellow and gold pipe cleaners. I was one of the only moms who allowed their child to have his own experience with the materials. The other moms directed their toddlers and even embellished their projects with additional beads and pipe cleaners. Jasper’s work is always very minimalist but he is very considerate and deliberate with what he chooses to use and how he places the adornments.

At the end of class, only ONE child went back for his project. It was Jasper. The teacher usually keeps the clay projects for one week to dry, but this week Jasper went back and insisted he take it home today and the teacher said yes. We are home now and he’s still working on his project and enjoying it immensely. 

We thank you and RIE for that!

Noelle

Young children don’t need art instruction, though they can benefit if we handle ourselves with Noelle’s care, trust and restraint.  The ideal, most creative scenario would be for the teacher to offer materials without suggesting ideas to the children. Why limit them to making suns when they might imagine a whole universe of creative possibilities?  Why train them to be goal-oriented rather than encourage the natural, healthy (and inspiring) ability children have to enjoy the process?

“Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up”                ~Pablo Picasso

I wish every parent and educator, especially those interested in creativity, would watch prodigy Aelita Andre’s videos.  Although her talent is obviously rare and extraordinary, the total absorption she shows in her “work” isn’t (unique, that is). In fact,  it is something I observe in babies and toddlers all the time.  This is self-directed play, children communing with self and engaging with their surroundings on their own terms. Every child is capable of this, beginning as young as a few days old, although it is up to us to foster it. Focus, flow, free play — whatever we call it — this is a richly educational, therapeutic and gratifying experience.

Can you imagine telling Aelita what she should paint? Don’t all children deserve this respect, trust, freedom? Granted, Aelita’s parents provided her with some unusually awesome, expensive materials, but children don’t need fancy stuff, or much stuff at all, to be able to:

Express thoughts, feelings, unique points of view  

Experiment (the very best way to learn)

Experience freedom and autonomy (which generally makes children much more amenable to the limits and directions they need us to give them).

Focus for an extended period

Build confidence and develop a sense of self

To encourage creativity we must let go of results and recognize the imbalance of power that occurs when we assist our children.  Our well-intentioned impulses to make it just a little better usually end up ruining everything. Even the most subtle meddling can interrupt a child spinning gold from straw — or pipe cleaners into rays of sun.  As Noelle noticed in art class, creative experiences are of little value to children if they don’t own them.

“The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” ~Robert Henri

Here are a just few of the powerful, life-affirming messages we deliver when we trust and stay out of the way:

You are creative

You are capable

Trust your instincts

Your ideas are enough…. perfect, in fact

”When it is working, you completely go into another place, you’re tapping into things that are totally universal, completely beyond your ego and your own self. That’s what it’s all about.” ~Keith Haring

For more, I recommend:

Don’t Move the Muffin Tins by Bev Bos

My new compilation: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

Articles:

How To Encourage Drawing Skills, Confidence and Creativity In Young Children by Jean Van’t Hul, The Artful Parent 

10 Simple Ways To Raise Creative Kids by Rachelle Doorley, Tinkerlab

Encouraging Childhood Creativity At Home by Mary Ann (guest post on Not Just Cute)

What Is Play? by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby

Why Not Draw For A Child? and Nurturing Creativity (How I Learned To Shut Up), both on this blog

 

A BIG thank you to Noelle and Jasper for letting me share your story!

 

(Photo of girl on bench by Jude Keith Rose)

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52 Responses to “Are You Putting The Kibosh On Creativity?”

  1. avatar Scott says:

    Janet, it’s so interesting that you posted this. I just wrote a post for tomorrow that touched on this same subject. I continue to reflect on what I do and strive to make sure that I encourage and not squelch kids’ creativity. Thanks for a great post.

    • avatar janet says:

      Thank you, Scott! You often share inspiring posts on this topic and you provide such brilliant examples from your classroom: http://scottsbricks.blogspot.com/ You are a wonderful model of “restraint” regarding creativity. Thanks for your incredible instincts…and all you do!

  2. avatar Julie says:

    This topic is especially pertinent in the world of “helicopter parents” epidemic. As a new-ish Mom (of a 2 yrd old, but I still feel as I am learning every moment!) it takes a conscious effort to not make it “my way” or “better”. My sister is a great influence as her husband is an artist and she encourages “wild creativity”. Being around other parents who embrace the child’s own creativity is wonderful reminder!

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Julie! It takes a “conscious effort” for all of us. Truly. I’ve been doing this for 19 years and it still takes a conscious effort not to make it “better”. I love the “wild creativity”! Lucky you to have such great influences around you.

      • avatar janet says:

        Okay, I want to correct something because I think it’s important. Although I smile at your sister’s term “wild creativity”, I think that it might give some the wrong impression. Child-led creativity isn’t extreme, wild or unruly. This is creativity. It is good, real, right, the way it should be, in my opinion.

        • avatar Kayla says:

          Oh, wildness, in and of itself, isn’t a negative thing. Letting your thoughts run can be wild, in a chaotic sort of way until it all settles into a more of a pattern.

          Wild does not mean unruly, bad, negative, or extreme — it means freedom to be untamed except by the self. =]

          Oh, and I loved this post, Janet. Thank you.

          • avatar janet says:

            Thank you, Kayla, and I totally agree, but wasn’t sure if others would understand that this isn’t a “fringe” point of view; it is the way art should be, in my humble opinion. Unfortunately, more directive ways have become the norm.

  3. avatar Hannah says:

    Holy moly! That video is amazing! I’m totally inspired to let go of all ‘guidance’ towards children’s creativity! :) thank you

  4. avatar Meagan says:

    I think there is SOME benifit to “projects” as long as you don’t do them too often. I think giving a few different options would also be good as opposed to, “everyone make a sun.” I think there is some value to providing a simple, compact goal for completion. There is satisfaction in finishing something and it gives an older child a sense of having done something more “real.” the T-shirt example you cite elsewhere on your blog is a good example… It was something entirely more special than scribbling on paper. Or how about the “tall paintings” Teacher Tom does with his preschoolers? I think maybe projects are a different type of play than the all important art exploration. It’s not just about creativity: it’s part art and part jigsaw puzzle.

    • avatar janet says:

      Meagan, I sort of agree, but I think this idea of doing something “real” is actually the problem. We are the ones who don’t see the child’s experimentation or invention as “real”. And then we teach this to our children. Your silly scribbles aren’t “real”. It’s much “better” to make something “real”. Who are we to decide what is “real” for another person? Art and creativity are about making something that feels real to that individual person at that moment. It’s not about what someone else believes is real, “right”, good, or whatever. There might be other benefits to doing those kinds of things, but they do not encourage creativity…and can discourage it.

      • avatar Meagan says:

        They can discourage creativity yes. I do see what you’re saying. But I don’t think the perception of “real” vs “not real” is entirely an adult projection. I remember being about 5 and explaining, quite seriously, to another kid, that right now I’m a little kid, next year I’ll be a big kid, then I’ll be a teenager and finally I’ll grow up to be a human being (beem). Of course that also has a lot to do with language understanding, but I think children can have the sense that childhood is a separate life from real life. What do you want to be when you grow up? Awful question. What do you want to be now? I want my kids to understand that they have already started their lives and they already have power.

        Ok, that’s all very abstract, and I’m not sure I has as much to do with art projects as I think, but in my mind they’re tied together. I don’t devalue scribbling. But a scribble is never finished, and I think there’s value in providing an opportunity to do something that has completion built into it.

        Another potential benifit to projects is the freedom of limits. A table full of blank paper and art supplies might be overwhelming. A loose goal, and a few simple elements, might encourage MORE exploration. My most striking paintings have a limited palett.

        I’m not saying it should all, or even half, be projects. I just urge you not to dismiss them. I think they have an entirely different kind of value than art experimentation. Not better or less, different.

        All that said, I’d be perfectly happy if my son never comes home with a paper plate and cotton ball snowman.

        • avatar janet says:

          Good point about the freedom of limits, Meagan. Generally, the older the child is, the safer it is to name their projects. But in their first years children usually just want to experiment with the materials. They aren’t developmentally ready to want to make “something” (unless they decide it’s “something”) and asking them to do so is usually limiting and discouraging.

          • avatar Meagan says:

            I think that’s fair. I can’t imagine doing a project with a toddler, but I love some of the projects Teacher Tom does with preschoolers.

  5. avatar Reannon says:

    This is great! I remember an elementary school art teacher drawing on one of my projects, and I got really angry. I told her that she had no right to do that, and she seemed shocked. Step back, adults! The children are busy. Hopefully, I will remember this experience and remember to give my girls space as they grow.

  6. avatar Jessica Z. says:

    I’d like to recommend a great book that our city art teacher referred me to that is built on the philosophy that art be about process rather than product at this age. It’s MaryAnn Kohl’s First Art for Toddlers and Twos. I think of it as a recipe book for how to put together an art station and make things like clay, gak, paint, etc. and let your child create whatever they like. Our city art class has been fabulous — the teacher sets out various materials and lets the toddlers do whatever they decide to do with it. If a kid decides to play with the bubbles in the tub for hand-washing the entire class (like my daughter often does), that is a-ok!

    • avatar janet says:

      Sounds great, Jessica! Thank you for making me aware of Kohl’s book.

  7. This is such an important post, Janet. I’m constantly referring you to parents, as you do such a good job unpacking the big questions of parenting. Thanks also for including a link to Tinkerlab.

  8. What a wonderful article I wish more parents understood that it’s about process rather than product even as high as secondary school exams in creative subects the final outcome gets much less marks than the process aspects do but as adults we are very goal orientated. We have already been informed by my eldest’s new preschool that it is unlikely we will have many items for our fridge instead he will have a tool box of methods to experiment with as he enters school the following year.

    • avatar janet says:

      I really like the sound of that school. Lucky you!

  9. avatar Twinmom says:

    Hi Janet
    I love this article and totally agree. My question is, my toddler twins go to Sunday school and at Sunday school their art projects always look the same. They usually forget them at church and don’t want to bring them home… My daughter tells me they “helped her” with hers.
    Is this harmful to their creativity if it is only during this one hour a week? I notice now that they moved from the nursery to the older toddler class they are asking me to do more of their art projects so I worry a little it may not be good for their creativity. thanks for your blog. I am a huge fan of it :)

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks, Twinmom! I wouldn’t worry about the once a week projects. Interesting that they’re so disinterested in them, isn’t it? This is so common, and yet we don’t put “didn’t really make it, so I don’t give a hoot” together.

      I would not go along with the twins’ requests for you to do the projects, though, because that could become an unproductive relationship dynamic between you… Just calmly acknowledge, “I hear you want my help, but I’m not going to interfere with your projects. You can choose to do them or not.” Or, you could help in a “following” manner…but that can be trickier. “Oh, you want me to glue those on for you? Where would you like that one to go… Please show me. Oh, just like that? Can you help me squeeze out the glue. Would you like to be the one to place the bead down on the glue?”

      • I hope it’s okay if I share another thought. I agree with Janet’s suggestions and would also add that process-based projects, or those that focus on sensory experiences or the phenomena of how materials work, would be great places to focus your at-home art-making efforts. For example, use clean medicine droppers to pull up liquid watercolor or a water/food coloring mixture, and then squeeze this onto paper. Or invite your toddler to mix food coloring into shaving cream and then paint with it in the bath. With projects like these, children get so focussed on the experience of exploration that they’ll forget about there being a “right” way to do something.

        • avatar janet says:

          Thanks so much for adding these great suggestions, Rachelle.

          • avatar Twinmom says:

            Thank you so much Janet and Rachelle! My son gets really frustrated when I won’t draw a particular thing for him on their easel but I am trying your suggestion. Their grandparents just spent a while here visiting and they were doing a lot of drawing for the kids, so it’s a habit I need to break now. They used to not ask and now it has translated to play doh and stuff now too. My son is on the autism spectrum and does some therapies and since I am there, I see that the therapists always show him how to do XYZ with play doh, then fix it if he isn’t doing it “right” etc, I am torn about the benefits of these therapies vs the serious cramp they put on his creativity.
            Thanks again!
            Courtney

            • avatar Helen says:

              My son is also autistic and whilst we don’t follow any rigid therapy programme I have found it beneficial to model aspects of behaviour and to practise them with him – we have a lot of spoken mantras and visual timetables/plans of action or response.
              I worry that I have meddled far too much in artistic endeavours but I have a child who needs to observe dozens of times before he feels able to experiment … he does however experiment and ‘do his own thing’ once he gets involved. So I think, certainly hope, that the creativity follows there.
              A lot of the the toddler experimentation mentioned here is to do with allowing the child to build a toolbox of techniques, thoughts, use of media and if our sons, and no doubt others, are in need of guidance to acquire their toolbox then that is just another slight difference between them and the ‘neuro-typical’
              What I feel is important is that we have these guiding principles in mind – those of stepping back, allowing creativity to happen, not imposing our views and expectations upon the child’s art – to modify and contain the more rigid training strategies that we have particular reason to use at other times.

              • avatar janet says:

                Helen, beautifully said… Thank you!

  10. I totally agree that art for early childhood is all about exploration and experimentation and that parents/teachers need to be very mindful not to inhibit or restrain the natural creativity of a child… and to encourage their own thinking and ideas… But I Don’t agree that we should not give any ‘instructions’ or make ‘suggestions’. I run private art classes for children.. The youngest ages are all about freedom and no ‘expectations’ but once a child reaches 3 or 4 I am very happy to extend their art interactions with more ‘project’ oriented tasks and to demonstrate new techniques and encourage them to think of solutions and different options. Like Meagan above I think there is place for BOTH – and nothing but ‘free creativity’ is perhaps doing a disservice to the children by not teaching them some new skills and approaches!

  11. avatar Danielle Netherton says:

    This is incredible!

    My son is 27 months old. Do you have any suggestions for getting him interested in art? I made finger paints but he isn’t interested. I can’t use shaving cream bcs he’s allergic and I’m worried about store-bought paints bcs even though they say “non-toxic” they really aren’t-and he still puts brushes and supplies in his mouth :(

    • avatar Danielle Netherton says:

      He also wants me to do EVERYTHING for him-so when I give him paper and crayons he hands me the crayon to draw.

      • avatar Danielle Netherton says:

        Oh, and when I tell him to draw he would rather throw the crayons and rip the paper : /

        I want him to have creative outlets, but I think maybe I should just wait and introduce it later? Or keep trying new things?

        • avatar janet says:

          Telling or even coaxing your boy to draw is a turn-off for him. Yes, wait, and trust him to do the things he’s ready to do. It’s very smart of him to hand you the crayons, since you are the one who is interested in the drawing! ;)

          • avatar Christina says:

            Hi! That made me laugh, A very intelligent boy letting his mum know what he thinks of the crayons.

        • avatar Christina says:

          Hello, there are many other creative outlets apart from drawing or painting. Does he like playing in the sand box? or does he like pouring and scooping with water or grains? I have recently come across coloured rice and my two girls aged 2 and 4 play with it for hrs on end, little spoons, containers, shells, some cars, or other toys, and they just play and play, art and creating doesn’t have to be something that has an end product or result, it is about the doing and enjoyment of that moment, things they are learning through all these things can be pre writing skills, which are necessary to know how to hold a pencil and have the strength in the hand and finger muscles to be able to apply enough pressure to make marks on the paper. creating can be with things found outside, stones, leaves, sticks, making designs with them, lining them up sequencing from big to small etc. there are so many ways to be creative……enjoy your time with your little one, it is gone in a flash…. and they are all grown up.:)

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Danielle, here’s the reply I left for you to your similar question on “Why Not Draw For A Child”: Your son’s behavior and lack of interest at this age sounds perfectly normal to me. To peak his interest I strongly suggest zero pressure and lots of waiting. In other words, be patient and trust your boy. He’s working on other things that are more important to him right now (and only he knows what they are).

  12. avatar Stephanie says:

    @ Danielle —sounds like he is on to somethhing with the paper ripping. Give him different colors of paper and some Qtips with glue!

    Janet…I appreciate your posts. After watching this video I can truly say I don’t allow the freedom I thought I did. We are a process art school, but I become frustrated trying to figure what the limitation should be. For example, if we allowed 14 kids to pour paint we would be undone. Or painting a project and kids want to paint their entire arms. Sometime I allow, but it is difficult for me to make these decisions from time to time. I don’t want to stifle creativity, but have to have boundaries. Any advice on how to meet both these requirements? Thanks.

    • avatar janet says:

      Great question, Stephanie. I think it’s perfectly fine to place limits around the use of materials. I believe this with books as well. Children should not feel free to do whatever they want with a book, a can of paint or a paintbrush (like eat them, for example). Children need to learn to respect these materials and you sound very capable of making thoughtful judgment calls. Perhaps they could each have a measuring cup from which to pour a ration of paint… These are practical, real life issues and do not stifle creativity the way “instruction” and embellishment can.

  13. Dear Janet,

    I am delighted to say that I found your blog this week, right in the middle of getting my space ready for a new school year with the children. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the children’s access to painting and wishing for a little inspiration… this moves me to tears.

    Aelita’s concentration and joy in the act of creating is so familiar to me in the faces of my own children. May we all spend time in a place that sees who we are and celebrates the beauty in that.

    Thank you for what is a wonderful new resource for me. I look forward to more!

    Marie

  14. avatar Rick Ackerly says:

    Great post (as usual)
    “They live in the moment, revel in the process, while learning and developing self-confidence.”
    That’s when adults are at their best, also.–I know I am.

  15. avatar Rick Ackerly says:

    One point that is not emphasized: This approach is not just better because it respects the child, it is better because it is better for building strong brains–they become smarter this way. The Jaspers will be the ones with the better test scores.

    • avatar janet says:

      I really appreciate this insight, Rick. (For those who don’t know Rick, he has been a educator for 45 years, headmaster of some highly regarded schools, and is also an author and nationally recognized speaker).

  16. avatar Abby says:

    I am loving your posts. I recently read a great little book that emphasises the importance of fostering creativity. It is called ‘Magic Places’ by Pennie Brownlee. It was first published in about 1983 by the New Zealand Playcentre Federation. It has been revised a few times but is just as, if not more, pertinent now. I hope you are able to find a copy somehow to have a look at it.
    The product description:
    Pennie takes an experience-based approach to children’s development of art. She offers rich examples of environments, language and real experiences that might excite the artist within and allow for “the natural unfolding of each child’s creativity.”
    Thanks for the inspiration and help Janet. Abby.

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks, Abby. I’ve heard mention of Pennie Brownlee several times now, so it’s time for me to check her out.

  17. avatar Avital says:

    Janet,

    As always I found this post inspired, thank you. As a designer myself – I find it key to allow my child to do all of his experimenting and art (he’s 23 months old) by himself and with minimum input for me. Generally I’ll just put out some paper, crayons, stickers and let the magic happen. Which works great. I once made the mistake of absent mindedly doodling a horse on a piece of paper along side him – and he got so excited and wanted me to draw more. I realized that this might set some expectation for him to be drawing something particular or for him to be passive and have me draw so I decided I wouldn’t be drawing alongside him anymore and I believe this gives him the space he needs to explore his own creativity.

    But something really nagged at me about the video of Aelita. I did appreciate your comment – shouldn’t all children recieve this respect and freedom – certainly! But I followed the link and found that little Aelita shows her work at prestigious galleries where they’re sold for huge sums, is the topic of a full feature film and a website, and is named a “prodigy”. I felt really uncomfortable with this kind of pressure on a child. I think it’s wonderful that she should be given the space, tools and respect to develop her interests – but something about this commercialization does not seem respectful to me. After all it’s not her who is steering this ship to be a money making sensation. And the word “prodigy” seems so domineering and high pressure.

    Perhaps I am overreacting? Perhaps what I’m saying is agist? But I think there’s a certain robbery of childhood in relating to her as “the next Pollack”. Interested to hear your thoughts!

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Avital, and thanks for sharing your wonderful example! I don’t think I would describe Aelita’s situation as “disrespectful”, but certainly any time there is fame surrounding children, it must be handled with great care and sensitivity. We’ve all noticed how hard it is to be a “child star” in the entertainment business, etc. I can’t quite remember how old she was in the most recent video I saw of her… I think around 6, and she still seemed totally authentic and inner-directed. I guess time will tell, but I certainly wish her the best.

      And maybe one day she’ll wake up and decide to be an accountant.

      • avatar Avital says:

        I agree it seems authentic and her story is an incredible inspiration of how children aren’t “half adults” they are complete in their own self and don’t need to be “finished” or “matured” to earn respect. Thank you as always!

  18. avatar Jenny says:

    At some point children need some instruction in the arts…For example, letting them experiment on the piano is good but they also need to learn basic skills in order to progress. The same is true for drawing the representation of animals and real objects. So in your opinion at what age do you introduce instruction? (I agree not in the toddler or preschool ages necessarily!)

    • avatar janet says:

      I like waiting until a child requests lessons, which children might do from age four or five on up. Then we can trust their readiness for direct instruction and be sure that this is our children’s interest, rather than ours.

  19. avatar Melissa says:

    I love this article and I agree wholeheartedly, shower I do not believe this child to be a prodigy. This is the result of allowing your child to be creative and express themselves without interference or putting your own agenda first. This is exactly what my son does in the bath tub with finger paint and it is fantastic. Great article.

  20. avatar Jen says:

    I love this article. I trained as a teacher this year, specialising in early years, and one thing I couldn’t stand was the insistence of the teacher I was training under that the art table had to contain an example picture for the children to copy that was “topic relevant” (they were 4 and 5 year olds). Every time she was off sick I would put out material choices instead and the look on the children’s faces that they were allowed to paint or sculpt or draw anything was just amazing. They really needed that release. I’ve decided I can’t work in an education system that doesn’t respect children’s right to choose and autonomy.

    One of the best and most-RIE systems of early years education I’ve found is the Reggio Emilia approach, which focuses on the 0-6 age group. It treats art in exactly the way you promote in this article, Janet, as a child centred process, ongoing for as long as the children wish, on a topic they decide to explore for themselves, or on no topic at all, exploring the materials. The artilierista, art teacher, is really there to provide materials, document the children’s process of learning and offer assistance only when asked or if a child asks for help with a new material e.g. “Ah Jimmy, I can see you’re getting frustrated; this is clay, it only sticks together when it is wet, like this. That’s why yours isn’t sticking. Would you like me to get some more water for you?”

    Reggio is a system that highly respects and values children and their thoughts, ideas, learning process, anything they choose to create, their ability to self direct and choose and their inherent ability to communicate in “a hundred languages” rather than the one adults prescribe for them. I really recommend looking into it if you’re an RIE parent looking for a preschool, or even just for some brilliant ideas and philosophies about early childhood. It isn’t just about art, although that is a highly valued part of Reggio provision because of the huge benefits to children.

    Hope it was okay to explain it here briefly here in this comment, it’s just such a relevant approach to the art in the original article!

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