Why Not Draw For A Child?

When we draw, mold, paint, or even build a sandcastle for our toddler, we can discourage her from doing those things herself. If she can’t do as well as mommy or daddy, why bother? The unfortunate result of this is that our children disengage from an activity that might have provided a creative outlet. I witnessed vivid proof of this theory several years ago…

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.”

why not draw for a child Jackie Asvig
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!)



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I really agree with the idea of getting out of children’s way and giving them the time they need to explore materials. I was nodding my head all the way through this piece until I got to Lisa Sunbury’s quote at the end.

    I am a teacher who is inspired by the children, teachers and families of Reggio Emilia. In this tradition, we make sure to teach children how to use materials (at some point). We first give them time to explore; many “invent” Pollack-style drip and spatter painting, experiment with both ends of a brush and leave the brush aside to work with their hands when painting. Eventually though, when children’s attention turns from exploration to attempts to represent their surroundings and their ideas, I think it’s important to teach them. For instance, after weeks of working with clay, I taught my three year olds how to score and wet clay to attach pieces. Now they can build up their work to match their creativity without the armature falling off.

    When and how do you feel that children should learn skills like these?

    1. Great question, Kendra. I won’t speak for Lisa, but the article I quoted from (and I highly recommend it) was geared towards infants and toddlers. Yes, I agree that there is a time and a place to provide instruction so that children can fulfill their creative objectives. But I believe that less is more, and discovery is always best whenever possible, don’t you? Often, we are the ones that are pushing children toward finished products.

    2. This is an excellent question, Kendra, and one I keep fresh in my head while doing art with the children in my class and at home with my children.
      I believe that by allowing children the ability to experience paint-ness and clay-ness or whatever medium you are using in as sensorially as possible is the first steps to learning these more refined methods of art. Once they know the medium in it’s most basic form by using hands, feet, smell, squishing and squelching and even tasting, they can become masters. This data they are collecting will be used to their benefit when later they are given tools, taught technique, while their self-control refines and the interest for making something look or work a certain way becomes their motive for activity.
      When is the best time? That is up to your children. My 4 year old still has very little interest in learning the “right” way to do just about anything. Yet I have practiced different ways to hold paintbrushes, how to pinch and even roll balls of clay, or how to mix watercolors to get the color you want with my classroom of almost 2 year olds. Always I am just waiting. Waiting for experiences to build and watching for that spark. I’m ready to jump in with as little or as lot as they might need, ready also to step back just as smoothly.

    3. Hi there

      Often my son will ask me to draw a car for him. I’ll draw it for him and then ask him to copy it…not sure if that’s the way to approach it as I feel then he feels he can’t draw it himself. Any ideas?

      1. avatar Presephany says:

        Hi Ruth
        May I suggest that next time your son asks you to draw something for him you encourage him to try it himself. Guide him by talking about what he knows about cars and their features. He may suggest that a car has wheels. You would encourage this as a good place to start drawing. If he’s stumped as to the features of a car he could draw, try looking at a real car, photo, or magazine picture (I would avoid colouring in pictures though). This is a much longer process initially than drawing something for him to copy, but it will give him confidence in his own ability to draw things around him.

  2. Thank you for this post. This is something I have thought about and wondered where to draw the line. I have so far followed my child’s lead but that has meant us often doing things for him too. He asks me to draw certain things and enjoys watching and seems satisfied by the joint effort of him drawing some things and me bringing to life things more detailed than he can yet and like wise my husband is in the sandpit now because he wanted to build something more complexed than he knew how to and asked Daddy to help him. In these situations I tell myself that asking for help is an important part of life. For example as a adult if I want to build a house I will call an architect and get there help in bringing my vision to life so I justify giving help when it is asked for as an empowering tool. Where do you suggest drawing the line Janet? Do you say no to helping or participating in the way I describe or do you think it is more about staying out of the way until asked and of course considering setting a limit if the requests look like the child is disempowering themself and covering up some feelings (needing a big cry to help them move forward)?

  3. 🙂 I think you just answered my question in response to Kendra.

    1. Katinka, I admit that I might be more of a purist in this area than others are, but I would proceed with lots of caution and awareness for a couple of reasons. First, we are extremely powerful in the eyes of our children. Without meaning to, we can easily overpower the child’s creative ideas with our own. Also, we can’t really be in our child’s mind, so the direction we take things will be different from the one the child would have taken on his own.

      Personally, I’m much more interested in what my children might do creatively than I am in contributing my own ideas, or making something that is more complicated, looks “better”, etc. When children ask and we say “yes”, they keep asking (and they become more motivated by “product” than they might be). By asking us to help they are turning to us to do it better. Children might do “less”, but to me it is much better if it’s theirs.

      1. So how do you respond when your child asks you to draw something for them? I always encourage my children to try on their own, and say that I want to see the way they can do it, but sometimes they insist that they want ME to draw whatever it is. (last time it was a ladder) So i try to tell them the way that I draw a ladder and ask them to do it themselves. The last time this happened, they were getting upset that I didn’t want to draw the ladder for them so when I finally drew it, they tried to do it afterwards and got upset when it didn’t look the same as the one I drew. I responded that it’s ok for their to look the way it did, that we were all just being creative and we all do things in different ways and that’s ok. Any suggestions on how to approach this situation next time?

  4. Hi Janet!

    This is a great illustration of letting children take part of the process of art. Months ago, on a play date, a friend of mine noticed my daughter held her marker perfectly (like a pencil.) I didn’t “teach” her but I have many times sat next to her doing my own thing, trying to channel my creativity, and she had copied how I held my crayon, paintbrush, etc.

    I’m more aware of the dangers of inhibiting her creativity, and I remember thinking many times (even as young as 5) that I’m not a talented or creative as my classmates. It’s definitely something to be conscience of.

    1. Hi Rebecca! That is actually the one thing I used to worry about a little with my children.. By the time they were 3 or 4, they were holding pens and pencils quite a bit and I was worried that they would form a habit that would make writing ultimately harder for them. So, I did occasionally suggest to them that they might hold the pencil as they would the handle of a puzzle piece. I notice my 10 year old son still holds his pencil in a manner that looks a little awkward to me…but his writing is just fine, so (once again) I learn to shut up and stay out of the way!

  5. I appreciate the focus on “process versus product” in this story. I too believe our society has far too great of a focus on the products our children can produce versus allowing them to grow and discover through the process.

    For myself as both a parent and movement educator I tend to lean more towards a balance between allowing my students (and daughters) the opportunity to explore but also provide guidance and modelling that allows them to work on developmentally appropriate skills.

    In my classes I approach dance using a conceptual approach to movement that balances student directed, teacher directed, and collaborative sections in my lessons. From my own experience I do not feel teachers who taught me new skills stifled my creativity Rather they provided me with a larger vocabulary with which to express myself and create.

    I try to apply this same approach to parenting. I provide my girls with opportunities to explore, discover, and create without my guidance (but my support). I also set aside time to work with them on new, developmentally skills they are interested in but may not be able to explore independently (i.e. reading, cooking, crafting, etc.). This seems to be working for us as my girls are very creative, curious, and motivated to learn 🙂

    Thank you for sharing your stories and thoughts on parenting and childhood, they always make me think about my own parenting/teaching.

  6. I’ve seen this same kind of thing in the kids workshops & camps that I conduct. I encourage the parents to participate, but to let their child do their own creating on their own project. Children get so much more out of the experience that way and develop a sense of self-reliance. Thank you for this article- I will definitely be sharing it!

  7. Hi Janet

    Thank you for this article. It explains my own philosophy so well, and it is a relief to know I’m not alone. I’m involved in a playgroup for under twos and so often the arts and crafts activities brought in by parents are so complicated they have to be done by the parents – the kids walk away disinterested. Regularly I feel like none of the other parents “get it”, so I have posted your article on my playgroup’s facebook page in the hope of converting some of them!

  8. avatar Bence Gerber says:

    Perhaps we should create an app for parents with young children, called handcuffs, (ok I know that is a little strong). A phone app that recoginzes when we are with a young child and gently reminds us periodically to observe and keep our hands in our pockets.

  9. Thanks Janet. You have given me some valuable food for thought. I will be more aware of what is happening now and observe plus have a little chat with my husband. When I went to the sandpit there was a fabulous structure being built while our son played with something else! Personally I am extremely unskilled in making, drawing etc so it is easier for me to only do as asked and let go if the project changes direction but not do for his more talented and perfectionist Dad. And I need to balance the fact that I wasn’t helped at all as a child (to my detriment) and I want my child’s experience to be different … Whilst making sure I don’t over compensate. Hmmm…

  10. I have a question: while I am totally an advocate of process vs. product, there are times of year when gift-giving is part of our school’s curriculum (xmas, mothers and fathers day, etc.). Any suggestions on what kinds of crafts/creations toddlers can do in their own way that can be given as gifts? I’ve had them make pieces of art to frame or decorate something pre-made (like a dishcloth/paperweight/giant clothespin,etc.). I’ve also had crafts where I’ve basically gone step by step through the whole process of making something (like a flowerpot filled with plaster with a picture holder in it) but it seemed more like my project than theirs even if they found little ways to make it their own. sometimes I wish we could just take their artwork and have them make a simple card but the culture of the school includes gifts and I don’t want my kids or their parents to feel left out.

    1. Vanessa, that’s a great question and I hope others will have suggestions for you. (Maybe I’ll ask on FB!)

      Personally, I liked gifts from my children that were as personal, meaningful and them as possible…and I never cared a hoot about “quality”, “fancy” or something the teacher obviously put a lot of effort into (no offense!).

      Some of my favorite preschool gifts have been photos of my child “showing Mommy and Daddy how she likes to play at school”. Or, my child’s answer to a question like, “what do you like about your mom?” (written down by the teacher). Hand prints are nice and even young toddlers usually like making them.

      There are also lots of “free-form” ornaments children can make by molding foil, etc., but I would not value something so much if my child had to be coaxed to do it. Maybe that’s just me.

      1. no offense taken, I totally agree with you. That’s what I think I would prefer if I was a parent. At my school, children often make cards (often with pictures) in addition to some kind of other “thing” and the “thing” is always the part that I have trouble thinking up. Like you said, there are times when I do feel like I have to coax a child to make something, though I’ve never had to really force it. Sometimes I’ll just approach them at a different time of day or alter the activity to make it more engaging and interesting for them. Still, it can be stressful and feel a little artificial. With preverbal toddlers especially, it seems inappropriate to work on a product-oriented craft (and I can’t get an answer to a question like, “what do you love about your mommy?”), but again, it’s part of the school culture and I don’t want anyone to feel left out.

        1. In my son’s nursery, for seasonal gifts, they cut one some card in e.g. the shape of a christmas cracker, and then give them paints etc. and then let them decorate it however they like. Sometimes, they’ll obviously restrict the colours to make it fit the season theme, so for the jubilee just now here in the UK they had a cardboard crown to decorate and red, blue and silver paint and various colours of glitter.

  11. Definitely important discussion and it is about ownership for the child. My daughter LOVES to paint and draw and often wants us to sit with her. Its hard when she says “paint with me mum” when I just want her to own her own painting and I don’t want to have any influence on what she paints (it will be hard to get back the days when she could paint without construction). So we do both – sometimes we share a painting and we have great family paintings (one framed on her bedroom wall), but we also have “this is your painting” paintings framed.

    The hard one is when she asks me to draw something because “I don’t know how to draw …..”. Sometimes I draw what she wants or we go look at a photo to get inspiration, but most times I’ve said, “just try, it doesn’t have to look exactly like a ….. should, it can be however you want it to look”.

    Whatever is going on with the art, it should just be organic for the moment and what they are asking for in their need to connect. BUT from them, not the parent.

    Right now she makes the most amazing water color paintings that I hope will continue, without direction.

  12. I totally agree and I love your real live example. This is so true and I do think we need to ask ourselves what message we give children when we don;t trust them.

  13. Hi Janet,
    This is such a timely post for me. I’ve been wondering lately about what might be the best way to introduce or provide materials for my 16 month old to begin her exploration. I am thinking I will just put paper and crayons or clay on her small table in her play area and see what happens, observe and set limits if needed, as needed much as I would any other object or toy. I guess, too it will be good to have a place (a container, or something) that she can easily access so she can take out and put away her materials, freely as desired?? As I write, it all feels a bit obvious or simplistic, but I find it so interesting to find the balance between simply making something available for her own inspiration as opposed to providing something with some sort of pressure or expectation. That difference feels important. Any ideas or suggestions would be appreciated. Thank you!

    1. Hi Julie! Yes, the way you present these activities (and ‘offer’ is probably a better word) does make a big and important difference (in my experience). !6 months is a bit young for toys she can’t use as she wishes (put in her mouth, etc.). I like giving children that freedom when they play…these objects are yours to explore as you wish. So, I would wait to introduce the crayons into her play space.

      Then, you will find that if you don’t show your daughter how to draw, she will NEVER ask you to. To me, this is the ideal. (But, as I’ve said, I’m an idealist about children and creativity, especially from infancy to Kindergarten age.)

      If you give children this window of time when there are no creative “rights and wrongs” and there is no implied inferiority about their abilities because “mommy does it better”, your children will then trust themselves enough to withstand even the dullest, most uninspired and overly directive art instruction later on. This is what I have found.

      1. I appreciate and can relate to your idealism around children and creativity, Janet. I agree that the ideal is that she be so into her own thing that she never even thinks to ask me to draw for her! And also that she be completely free to do whatever she chooses with the materials when they are offered. So I am more than happy to hold off for awhile. Thank you for your suggestions for when the time comes.

  14. oh great post. I see the same daily with dough. A recipe, spoons, bowls, weighing equipment etc etc. There is no right way to make dough so why give a recipe? give them the ingredients and let them make what they feel like making. much more creative and involves much more learning.

    1. I never thought of that one, Tracie…great idea!

  15. I was sidewalk-chalkin’ yesterday evening with Hank and the neighbor kids. They would ask me what they should draw and I’d recommend things…lions, bikes, basketball hoops (pushing my own imagination!)…and I bit my tongue from providing direction beyond that. You should see the illustrations they came up with! As we were walking back in, the neighbor boy, Ethan, looks up at me and says, “Rose, I think I want to be an artist when I grow up.” Boundaries create fear, but an open palate creates prides. Kudos to a great post!!!!!!

  16. Thank you Janet for your articles. Always good reminders and inspiring.
    I work with children 3 to 6 and I find what you say is spot on. For open ended painting it’s important to prepare the materials for the children to explore and experiment.
    If a child asks to have something drawn for them, it’s possible to bring it back to them ~ what does a car look like? How many wheels does it have ? Children make pictures that look completely abstract to me but if you ask them to tell you about it they have an elaborate story about their picture.
    There is a local “studio” for toddlers. The parent accompanies the child. From what I’ve seen (Photos on fb Sprout Studio) they look to be having a great time exploring.

    1. Kat, thank you, this has been my experience, too: “Children make pictures that look completely abstract to me but if you ask them to tell you about it they have an elaborate story about their picture.”

      The mother of the little boy in the photo (above) told me this about her son’s work: “They look like scribbles but he
      narrates what he is drawing and they are concrete mixers, back-hoe loaders, pickup trucks, buses, and garbage trucks.”

  17. I really loved this article. I have been guilty of a bit more “coaching” than I should have in the past, but most recently “let go”. In parent & me class they were making doggies with construction paper and pre-cut shapes for eyes, tongue, ears, etc. All the mothers were guiding the children as to where to place the face parts, but as I let Natalia just go, it was fun to see her create a party hat with the tongue, mouth with a nose, and ears as cheeks. She was quite enamored with her “birthday dog” creation. 🙂 I sent your article to the grandmas (who sometimes take her to class) as well as the teacher too.

  18. Hi,
    I appreciated this article. Process… experimentation..messy experimentation, and play are always so important! I want to share a story about my son though. When Jason was 4, he loved to tell his dad what to draw. He would describe details about where to put the bicycles or the sunset. They went through a pad of paper a week with amazing details. If Dad didn’t draw exactly what was wanted, Jason would correct him. THey loved this time together. At a parent teacher conference, we were told that we were damaging Jason’s self esteem and to stop. We didn’t listen. Slowly, Jason took over drawing so at 5, 10, 20, and now 25 years, Jason draws with incredible detail. He and his dad still share a special relationship: they work together, listening to each other, consulting, and sharing the work a project or discussion of a book.

    1. Julia, thank you. I appreciate this story because it exemplifies the fact that children are unique individuals. Your son’s relationship with his dad sounds magnificent! And I’m glad that the daddy-led drawing time together turned out to be such a blessing. Many parents have told me a different story… Their children request help with even the simplest school art projects and consider themselves “not creative”.

  19. I agree with you on this 100%. I started observing exactly this in my daughter (20 months)… I gave her some coloring pens and let her play with them. She knew what a pen is from watching me write lists/notes; she would just draw lines and dots on the paper.

    Unfortunately, her grandma and aunt would draw for her when they visit and she stopped drawing herself. She brings me the crayons, hands them over to me and points at the paper indicating I should draw something 🙁 So far all i do is scratch a line and hand the crayon back to her. But she seems to have lost interest. I’m hoping that she’ll feel interested again..

    1. Kay, I’m sure she’ll be interested again. 20 months is very young for drawing to be interesting. Next time, you might want to handle it by acknowledging, “Grandma draws pictures for you and you want me to. I won’t draw for you, but I would love to draw with you.” Then you each have paper and you slowly “scribble” next to her.

  20. I love this article very much, thank you. It is very reassuring that my instincts were in the right place when it came to crafts, I did make the mistake when my son was younger to draw for him and it has been hard to “undo” that but when we have gone to play dates and there are crafts involved I don’t make him participate if he is playing or tell him how to do it. There is a playgoup I am no longer a member of that organized crafts often and I remember the host would not exactly appreciate the fact that he decided to play instead, so I would do the crafts myself mostly just as a gesture of appreciation of her preparing materials but it was still uncomfortable. I understand the good intentions but shouldn’t it be about the little ones after all?

  21. This is a concern – I’m now worried I’m doing my son a horrible disservice. My son, Daniel, is 22 months. We got him playdoh. Not for art purposes – we thought he’d like the texture and the colors, to just hold and mash it. And he does. But then I told him, look what you can do with this, and made him a ball. I guess I shouldn’t have. And after I got tired of making balls on demand, I made a car. So now he asks for car, train, bus or flower – he goes to the playdoh, brings a chosen color to me and asks. Then he carries around whatever we made and refuses to let go and comes back to us when parts fall of (which they do – we’re bad at it). So am I making him feel incapable, discouraged and disinterested? What would you recommend? How can I go back and undo and get him to start experimenting more?

    1. Dorit, first off, I wouldn’t worry at all. Young children are extremely adaptable. Anytime we want to change a dynamic we have with our child, I advise doing so with honesty and lots of acknowledgment. So, next time Daniel asks you to make something for him (or maybe even before) tell him that you will roll clay next to him, but you won’t be making the cars, etc. Acknowledge, “yes, I usually make those things for you, but I won’t be doing that again for now.” If he cries, acknowledge again, “You want me to do what I usually do and I said no. That’s upsetting.”

      They key is confidence and clarity. Remember, you have a right to change the plan with Daniel’s best interest in mind; Daniel has a right to his feelings about that. What he needs most is to be able to express his feelings and know you understand.

  22. Hi Janet – I love this post and agree totally, but I struggle with what words to tell the child when they ask me to draw something for them. I usually say, “then it would be my drawing and this is your creation.” That doesn’t seem to satisfy them and I was just wondering if you could give me a little more direction in this area. Thanks!

  23. Hi there, I am in a similar boat with my 3 year old. I have been ‘enlightened’ by this article but now really NEED to know how to undo some of the damage I have caused with doing things for her and showing her how I do things. I realise now that she does often ask me how to do things rather than instigating her own processes through play. PLEASE, how can I start reversing that? She doesn’t really allow me to sit back and be passive anymore (probably because I have interfered too much in the past) I feel sad about it now

  24. I feel we as grown ups must be careful on the way we encourage our kids or students art work.
    Too much “noise” about a finished work may stuck the kid on that same drawing style over and over again trying to please us.
    On the other hand, we should not name the art piece as this or that (your car,house…)and end up knowing it was a complete different thing.

      1. We always praise our little girl for her creativity, or hard work and then say “tell me more about this” instead of guessing what she has made.

  25. Absolutely agree for children to be left to explore their artistic skills. The one thing that really gets to me is when teachers ‘fix up’ children’s paintings or artworks!!! I am a teacher myself and have witnessed this on a number of occasions and I am totally gobsmacked that they do this!!! How to undermine our children’s creativeness abilities once again!

  26. In my time working with 3’s and younger, I have challenged myself to let them be the intitators with any art provocation. Then, I try to copy both how they use their hands and the designs they are making. And it’s so hard! It’s hard to be unpracticed and uncoordinated, so it slows me down and draws the focus to how hands are moving and how the medium can be manipulated and the stories that constantly accompany.
    This can look like splashing water with an infant, poking a chunk of clay or carefully mimicing the lines with chalk or a marker. I find it very inspiring at helps put me in their place.

  27. I love reading your posts, so inspiring. I wanted to share my experience with my son though, as an alternate perspective. He was completely disinterested in art materials of all sorts, and I admit that it bothered me. I thought he needed to explore these things so I pushed it too early maybe. Just before he turned 2 I decided to stop just putting the crayons out there and show him what they were for. I invited him to come draw with me and he would tell me what to draw and I’d draw it. We drew donkeys, monkeys, dinosaurs etc. I’d make sure he had a crayon in his hand as well but he rarely contributed to the picture.

    Finally one day I was able to get him to explore on his own and now (two and four months) he happily “draws” and tells me he’s drawing all the same things I used to draw for him. He never asks me to draw for him anymore, though he sometimes invites me to draw with him (on my own paper).

    Also, thoughts about child-centered gifts: objects (flower pots, picture frames, tote bags etc) that can be decorated, a video or audio recording of the child, a collage of the child’s artwork. Even handprints seem forced to me, but I think if you can set up an activity where the child is free to explore and create and then you give the result to the parent that would be a great gift as far as I’m concerned.

  28. I definitely agree with this – particularly for toddlers, but there are times and places when I feel the need to step in.

    I do art clubs with children living in poverty and at extreme risk ~ these children have so little confidence they will scratch something quickly on paper and say they are “done.” or they’ll draw something and say, “look how ugly this is.” They also have so little exposure to art supplies, they don’t have any experience to draw upon. They are much more comfortable to just color in a coloring book. With these kids I’ve had to push them a little bit, and a lot of times this means working together on a painting.

    For instance this past week I had oil pastels and chalks. I drew hearts upon hearts and we filled them in with color and blended the colors together some. Some of the children just saw my drawing and immediately it sparked their interest and they were off making a beautiful design ~ others I drew the hearts for them to start off. And when they said “done” I would point to more white space and ask what should we put here? When they finish I ask if they like what they made? We hang the very best work up in the library space that we use, and it is very meaningful to them.

    For so long i held back, not wanting to disturb their creative process, but when I finally realized I needed to step in more, that’s when their interest in art and their work has dramatically improved.

    But even having said this, I understand that the principle you are sharing here has to be at the heart of it all – and the heart of it all is a respect for children – their ideas in art and creating. For some children with trauma it may need a little help being uncovered – but it is going to look very different from the example above with the parents helping with the t-shirts.

    I’ve also done some water coloring with my 6 year old. For instance I sketched a fish in light pencil on water color paper and he painted it and filled in the background – my simple sketch (at his request) just helped get him going – and he was trying to copy a picture from a book. he spent probably 45 min on the painting itself. I used to always say no if my children asked me to draw for them – because I figured what’s the point of me drawing for them? But when I jumped into the painting with him, we ended up both staying engaged in the process for a long time and I don’t believe it stunted any creative development.

    Just adding some additional thoughts ~ !

    1. Thank you, Leslie! I appreciate these examples you share and I have great admiration for the work you do! Yes, there are situations in which children need encouragement and more pro-activity from the adult…but I don’t think the average child does, if we are able to be patient and trusting from the beginning.

      1. exactly! And I think that’s what these kids were missing – they never had that and boy what a difference it makes.

  29. Janet, your example totally reminded me the art project that was assigned to my kindergartener to do at home. when kids brought what they did to school it was obvious everything was done by the parents, some parents were so proud that they spent three eveneings designing and creating beautiful project that will definitely win in the “best project in the grade”. i think my son was the only one who designed and did the whole thing by himself. quiet obviously he didnot win. it was very sad. i did not understand the point of the project if parents were doing it just so it looks good and wins

    1. Marina, I have experienced that exact situation many times over the years with my 3 children. From what I have seen, this doesn’t bode well for those children to feel competent in the future. I think it would be a good idea to share your thoughts about this with your son (if you haven’t already). It speaks to your values about authenticity, ethics and integrity (which will no doubt be adopted by your son) and your mindfulness as a parent. I’m sure that “win” or not, your son felt much more pride in his accomplishment than did any of those other children.

  30. I really like this post and totally agree with the premise. My daughter is almost three and these days I find myself more and more trying to learn from her on how to improve my own creative process. For example, I tend to try and have things figured out in my head and express aloud only once I think I have the “right” answer. My ego gets in the way, it does not want to be “wrong”. Whereas my daughter when she hears something new will keep repeating it, often out of context, will play with the words and through a process of expression, figure things out. Almost feels like she senses our reaction to her usage of new language and from that figures out the appropriate context and usage. This post has inspired me to be more watchful of the times I reach over to her and ask her to draw that smiley stick figure such that my friends may be impressed with her artistic talent. So much of what we like to see our kids do ends up being merely to satisfy our own ego. Sigh :).
    The other thought I had while reading this is that the same applies to adults as well, especially in any kind of job that has an element of creativity involved. Very often managers ask their people to do this then this then this and make sure it turns out exactly like this. And it needs to be this way so I get my bonus, and only then will you get your bonus. All of this takes the ownership and spirit away in the same way as you describe.

  31. I witnessed the same parental control at a child and parent art class with mostly 2 & 3 year olds. I nearly had to twist my sons arm to stay still to do the artwork, but it was his own. Many of the other parents were telling their children where to put items, adding items or drawing for them. At home he comes and goes if I leave it out during play and he’s much happier.

    1. Natalie, you bring up a great point about the appropriateness of classes for children this age… Is it developmentally appropriate to ask toddlers to create by the clock? Even my 15 year old works verrrry slowly when she is drawing (and always has), but she does beautiful work.

  32. Hi Janet,

    Great discussion – and something I have thought a lot about recently as the playcentre that I take my one year old to forbids adults to do any ‘demonstrating’…no drawing, playdough creations etc. I understand the logic at the heart of this, but think this level of extremity is unnecessary and can be just as unhelpful as the parents you describe above who direct their child’s t-shirt creations to the n-th degree.

    Young children learn almost everything from their parents…from how to hold a phone against their ear to how to measure ingredients into a bowl…art-making is no different. Although it is accepted that ‘helping’ by doing part of a child’s artwork for them (at any age) or controlling their compositional decisions IS highly unhelpful and doesn’t encourage confidence or development of the child’s own skill etc, this doesn’t mean that the best solution is to refrain from doing any demonstrating at all. This seems somewhat absurd to me.

    There are so many art skills that children can learn…how to hold a brush / how to roll playdough / how to apply paint to make different textures / patterns / surfaces etc, weaving…and also watching others (and then experiencing themselves) how to draw from observation. To say that children should learn all of these things by experience alone doesn’t make sense to me. Children learn so many things from mimicking their parents – why should creative endeavours be any different?

    I remember as a young child my mother sitting beside me drawing my younger siblings and later her demonstrating on her own piece of paper how I might use various techniques in my artwork. I know this was a significant factor in shaping my own artistic skill. If a child is encouraged and praised for their own creations, there is no reason that they should be discouraged. Adults are more ‘skilful’ than children in just about all areas – and in my experience are motivated and inspired to see adults producing great art. I have a family friend who was a well known artist. I frequently saw his works in close quarters and saw him painting them – this didn’t discourage me – it was part of the reason I am now an artist and art teacher. Almost every single high achieving student in my class tells tales of those who not just encouraged them at younger ages, but who got in there and taught them things…

    My mother is a new entrance teacher and reports that there are many five year olds who get to school having never held a pair of scissors – I am sure there are others who have never seen an adult draw a picture or paint a picture.

    There are so many avenues for fun awesome learning. This doesn’t mean advocating DOING art for children or controlling how or what they do… but there are huge benefits from taking part and demonstrating good practice (on our own piece of paper etc)…and also demonstrating a real love for creating and colourful mess-making! 🙂

    Just my two cents worth! 😛


  33. I believe in letting a child… even a toddler and baby direct their own play/art etc. but is it wrong to give an example … like to a baby? ….

    And why in Montessori are you taught, and forced to draw in one direction … and if you don’t you get in trouble and are told it’s wrong? I hate that.

    1. It isn’t “wrong” to give an example, but if the example is something the child can’t do as well as we do, he or she is very likely to turn the creativity over to us. This doesn’t always happen, but that is the danger. We are very powerful to our children and what we do is often perceived as the “right” way. That can be discouraging and limiting.

      1. Sorry Janet but I disagree. By this logic we should never attend art exhibitions or artists studios in fear of showing children something which they can’t do “as well”. I cannot paint like Michelangelo but nevertheless find his work inspiring. I love the arts and love working alongside children to create wonderful things. I find that when I do this children stay at the art table much longer and I get to be a part of their wonderful discussions about their creations. Amiria I totally agree with you, it is inspiring to see others work. My grandmother was an artist and I would watch her paint and paint alongside her. She was my inspiration and many of my earliest memories are working alongside her in her studio.

        1. No need to be sorry for disagreeing. I think you are discounting the enormous power parents have with their children. What would you say to the many parents whose children say “I can’t” around anything creative, because the parents believed they should show them how it’s done? I hear from these parents all the time. Educators like Bev Bos, who has spent 30 or 40 years working with children, know what they are talking about, because they observe and learn more than teach.

  34. I had a very similar experience with playdough recently. We were at a friends house and the playdough was brought out for our 18 month children. The two other Mums immediatly showed their children what to do with it, which was mainly cutting out shapes, whilst I sat back and just played with a little bit of playdough in my hands, just squeezing it and watching. My daughter was fascinated and stayed at the table for an hour exploring and rolling and squeezing and tearing… the other two children had lost interest after five minutes.

    1. Chloe, this is a great observation and experience to share! Thank you!

  35. avatar Danielle Netherton says:

    Wow. That was incredible! my son is 27 months old and I would love for him to paint but he eats the paint and puts all the supplies in his mouth still.
    I have put homemade finger paint out for him to explore with but he isn’t interested.
    I’m wondering what you suggest to help peek a toddlers interest in art

    1. Hi Danielle, your son 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 more important things right now (and only he knows what they are). 🙂

  36. avatar Christina says:

    Thank you for the reminder. I have two kids, just turned 6 and 2.5, and I know it is best to leave them to explore their art in their own ways, but I sometimes find it hard, and really regret it when my inner perfectionist rears her ugly head!

    As a pre schooler, my older child was never a drawer or painter. He never just sat and doodled. He never wanted to get his hands dirty, so he generally avoided clay, play dough, and finger painting. He did enjoy watercolors and making collages though. In the past year or so he has gotten past the dirty hands thing and really enjoys art now. He is a divergent thinker and I love to see his drawings!

    My younger child did love to sit and draw from a very young age and I was so excited. This stopped unfortunately. I think it happened around the time her brother started drawing more. She started saying she couldn’t draw things so she just lost interest. They are very close and usually do things together, so I think I need to encourage her artistic endeavors more while he is at school. Any other suggestions?


  37. This reminds me of a quote I heard once. I’m paraphrasing since I don’t know the source but it goes something like this. When we teach a child to do something we forever rob them of the satisfaction of discovering it on their own. Is this a Magda quote? It sure feels like one.

  38. Hi Janet. I’m not good at drawing, therefore, I didn’t draw for my daughter because I think I have a creative talent. Far from it.

    I had drawn a circle for her a month ago, while we were on holidays. She didn’t forget. When I got her some material to draw at home, she asked me to do it again. I read you articles all the time and I felt it was not the best thing to do, but I didn’t want her to think I was not understanding her request. I couldn’t tell her ¨You can do it¨, because she can’t yet. So I did it again. She is always interested in drawing, but when I give her the material she asks me to do it (she will draw a bit though). How can I correct my mistake? Thanks

  39. I think there is a lot of room between instructing your kid how to do it and leaving them to the process entirely. There’s a lovely space where you can co-create a piece of art. My daughter will often instruct me to draw some part of a picture, and she will add to it. They’re joint pieces with either one of us leading the main design, but the input of the other is entirely up to them. I’m totally aware of the fact that drawing realistic things is easier for me than her, so we do this more for abstract items.

    Two examples:
    We were doing crafts with glitter glue and paper. I made my own designs, she did her own. Then she wanted to do one together. I made some spirals on the paper and handed it over to her to do whatever she wanted. The finished, joint project was quite beautiful.

    We were painting our own things next to each other on her easel, again, per her request. I made a painting with some flowers here and there, and she asked me to paint in cookie monster, then she added a cookie for him. And then decided that she needed to improve my cookie monster – which, of course, I encouraged!

    And sometimes, when she wants to draw something she feels she can’t yet, and she asks me to, I’ll draw a small version of it, somewhere other than where she intends it to be, so she can see it, and then do it herself. Of course, I ask lots of questions about it, and try to provide ONLY as much as she asks for. But I think there is value in this exchange as well – including me discussing the process of how I’m trying to figure out how to draw it.

    Of course, lots of time for the kid to do their own work with zero instructive influence from the parent is important too, but I think there is room for very respectful work together. And telling the kid how to do it isn’t respectful.

  40. Dear Janet,

    I also think that it is better not to lead the kids how to do the things and I do this for my son; however, especially here in Turkey people loves to inrefere with everything about kids. They love to teach drawing, holding pencil, correct the kids and beleive me I fed up warning people. For exapmle when my kid (Demir-28 m) tries to draw a horse or sun they direclty correct him. I warn them like ‘we dont correct what he draws’ or ‘what do you think Demir, do you think it is a horse,…than it is a horse’ or they say ‘wowww such a beatiful drawing’bla bla….I really dont want to warn every single person talking to Demir. Do you think the most important thing is how I behave him or the other people around him are important fro him too, in terms of effecting his creativity? thank you

    1. Hi Eylem! Great question and my answer is YES. The day-to-day interactions your boy has with you, his influential parents, are really all that matters. So, don’t worry, and keep up the wonderful work!

  41. It takes courage and dedication to the cause to write a post like this. Thanks for speaking up for children.

  42. As an Early Childhood Educator for the last 25+ years it has always been my philosophy to offer materials and let the children create what they want. I usually will not ask them about their art, but instead will comment on their use of color or offer more materials and colors. They create amazing things when given time and space to explore. In the past few years, I have noticed an alarming trend in my classrooms. I have children coming in who have no idea how to play/work/build with blocks/paint spontaneously. My fellow teachers and I are having to teach “play” skills (this has been a hard one to figure out) as well as self-help skills that many of these kiddos (some four or five already) should have mastered at home. I see these children “freeze” when presented with an open ended construction/art/dramatic play activity. They do not know how to initiate their own immaginations. I find myself offering more suggestions/instruction on “how” they can use the equipment. With some, there is almost a palpable “fear” that they wont “do it right”. It has been incredibly difficult to watch these children go through such anziety about PLAYING and I am their biggest cheerleader when they have a moment of letting go and just enjoying what they are doing. I think the trend can definitely be linked in part (big part) to the use of technology and exposure to it at a young age. An example: I have a child in our Toddler Group that is having a hard adjustment. One of our teachers happened to be in the parking lot when this child went home and parent buckled the child into their seat and then handed her an Ipad for the trip home…how do I counteract that?

    1. It sounds like you are counteracting it as best you can, Teresa. Other teachers have shared similar stories with me. This makes me very, very sad, but I’m glad you are out there helping.

  43. Can confirm; adults do this with paper, too. our library runs a weekly event that includes doing a picture. Our daughter is usually one or three of 30 who paints as she chooses; everyone else has parents telling them wat to do and where and I hear so much “no, not there”… sigh.

      1. avatar unmowngrass says:

        I was coming here to leave a separate comment, but I think I know to what end…

        The parent’s own genuine open ended creativity is SO stifled, disused for years or decades, but it’s so important to actually being a human, so that adult’s inner soul is actually DESPERATE to just sit with a piece of paper and a pencil (or paintbrush, or whatever) and experiment for half or a quarter of an hour, that that instinct takes over. They’re not TRYING to stifle their child’s creativity. But their own need takes over to the point that they are being driven by emotion/instinct and are not able (unless with A LOT of practice) to be rational and think about what their child needs at that moment. They are not really thinking about their child at all. They are not really thinking. They are just doing. And that’s actually fine and wonderful for their own development, and it’s so hard for adults to get out of their own heads that they need permission to do it and the children are therefore a convenient excuse, but the problem is as you’ve said, it cuts the children off from the same thing. Doing it together (each on their own paper) can help, but from the comments that doesn’t work either. Frustration all around.

  44. Janet
    thank you so much for your words of wisdom!
    I am teaching a group of caretakers in childcare centers in Israel and the subject this week is “offering materials” to the children.
    I always tell them the importance of not mixing in and letting every child work it out-our job being making sure there is ample space and materials available. If the child wants us to look at their work, we will describe what we see. “You used many colors.”etc. We try not to say “good for you” or other meaningless sayings which don’t really tell them what they did.
    I will be using some of your smart sayings!

  45. Thank you for this post. For the past year I have tried to encourage my toddler (now 2 and a half) to explore his creative/artistic side. We’ve used pencils, chalk, paint, markers, crayons. Initially he showed very little interest, so I sat and drew some things. After that our art time involved relentless requests for different trucks. He was very interested in watching me, but completely unwilling to even touch paint himself (I think that he has a few sensory aversions). About 6 weeks ago, I bought him a new drawing book and he immediately filled it with wheels. Since then his drawing has blossomed. One of his favourite things is to come in the shower with me so that he can draw in the steam. But I’m worried that his drawings are attempts to copy mine rather than a product of his innate creativity. I’ve taken a big step back since he picked up the pens, but after reading this I’m more worried that I’ve squashed his creative little soul.

    1. I wouldn’t worry at all, Emily. His self-initiated drawing (and blossoming!) is an excellent sign

  46. I have been reading through a lot of your site, and I love most of the child-directed methods here! With this one, though, I think it’s important to take into account the comments about artistic method that some people are making. My own kiddo is still an infant, but I think of this through my own experiences as a kid.

    It reminds me of a comment by Ira Glass that is targeted at much older artists, but I think it can apply to very young artists too.. It’s long, so I’ll take as little of it as I can, but it’s really worth reading the whole thing if you look it up.

    “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.”

    I know that toddlers and young kids are often very excited about what they make, and happy that they made it themselves. At some point, though, and I think it can be much younger than adults realize, kids start getting more ambitious than their hands and techniques can keep up with.

    I still remember the day that I decided I would never be a good artist. I was around 5. I was trying to draw a monster, and I couldn’t make it look on the paper how it looked in my head. I knew it was possible to make monsters look how they looked in my head, because I had seen things like what I wanted to draw in cartoons and in books – but I couldn’t do it. I asked my mom if she could help, and she said that she knew I could do it myself – I could draw a monster just as good as the ones in my books. I went back to my table and tried and tried, but I KNEW that it was wrong, and that my mom didn’t understand how bad my drawing was. From that day, I was embarrassed about any art I made, and I didn’t do it very often – and when I did it for myself, I would always hide or throw away the results. I still have the habit of erasing or scribbling out any doodles I make in the margins of notebooks.

    I told my mom many years later, and she said she had been trying to convey that she knew I could imagine something just as fantastic as any adult artist, and that she didn’t want to limit my creativity by doing any of it for me.

    It wasn’t until I read the Ira Glass quotation that I understood what had happened – I had developed a mismatch between taste and ability much earlier than parents expect kids to. I think that it’s possible to underestimate this aspect of young children’s development, and so in some cases it can be appropriate to step in and begin teaching skills and techniques rather than waiting for children to teach themselves.

    Do you have any advice for how to figure this out? I wouldn’t want to stifle my kiddo’s learning or creativity when she gets to be that age, but I also wouldn’t want for her to quit things before she understands that sometimes peoples’ brains go faster than their hands but there are ways to practice that help the hands catch up.

  47. Hi Janet, I have a few questions…
    When we go to the beach we collect shells & rocks to paint & create art with. I normally sit alongside my 24month old while she paints her rock & I paint mine… If she wanders over with her paintbrush to paint over my work should I let her? OR should I be encouraging ownership – that I have created my own art & you have yours?
    Sometimes we paint/draw together – but just curious about teaching that sometimes people (ie other children) like to keep their work their own.
    Also, I wonder about using techniques in front of her… For example I provide different tools to paint with, like bushy branches, skewers, seed pods, traditional brushes etc… So if I am using a skewer to create a dot painting, is that limiting her thinking on how to use it? – will tha discourage her from trying other techniques with it after watching me?
    I’m in favour of seeing her organic talent & concepts but am torn between being an extra source of inspiration for her by providing other possibilities with the materials.

  48. Thank you, Thank you! We need to apply this thinking in our schools too. I am sharing this with our Academic Coordinators today. A quick question, have you ever thought of translating your information into Spanish? That would be amazing. Let’s do it…..

  49. Hi Janet! My 21 mo old daughter LOVES art… Painting, playdoh, crayons, markers, etc. the problem that I’m running into, is that she is getting carried away and taking the art all over the house (including the markers on the couch!). I don’t want to stifle this interest or her creative exploration, but I’ve tried everything I can think of and always say “only on paper”, and it usually ends with me having to take the materials away and her upset. Should I take the art things away completely until she is older maybe?

    1. Yes, I think she’s clearly letting you know she’s not ready to have free access to the art supplies. It will definitely not discourage or stifle her to have limited access… She can be creative with simple, safe toys and objects: stacking blocks, creating formations with manipulatives, etc.

  50. Hi Janet,
    I am having a little bit of a hard time with this one. My question is, what if you yourself are a creative who engages in drawing, painting, dancing, singing etc on a regular basis. My daughter is automatically drawn to nearly anything I engage in. I understand the concept you are trying to convey and I can see its value. As a creative, I don’t want to thwart my own Childs sense of creativity or exploration in any way. But as their parent, who engages in art regularly, aren’t I providing an example of “how to do something” any time I am making art? Under your theory, how can I continue to be artistic myself without thwarting my child’s creative development? This article makes me feel like I should be making art in a closet or not at all. I would love your insight because I want to share art with my daughter and encourage her creativity and I also want to make art and be creative myself. I consider it quality time together.

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