How can we help our children hold on to their inborn creative spark? I believe it is by encouraging the open-ended exploration of their world. And since my passion is art, I especially encourage the exploration of art materials and art techniques—also known as process-oriented art. Because there are no right or wrong ways to do art when approached this way, it promotes flexible thinking, a willingness to take risks, and it builds confidence. All important skills and traits for the creative person. And, of course, process-oriented art is fun!
I believe that to always begin with the end in mind, as with the crafts many of us did in school as children, is to cut off both the potential for creative exploration as well as the potential for what the art or craft could have become. So, rather than beginning with a defined end product (such as a paper plate snowman), I begin with a material (watercolors) or with a technique (collage) and go from there. There are so many possible variables when beginning an art project—the materials, the tools, the surface, and, most importantly, the child herself. When my daughter begins to do art, she brings to it a whole set of experiences and expectations as well as her current mood, interests, ideas, and skill level. Add in whatever materials I have set out or that she seeks out, and the possible variations of how the art project will proceed, let alone look like, when it is finished are endless. This is the way it should be! This is process-oriented art in action.
So, instead of offering two paper plates, three cotton balls, two googly eyes, and instructions for assembling them the “correct” way, offer a few art materials (tape, paint, and canvas, as in the project below), some encouragement, and possibly a suggestion for getting started (“Would you like to put some tape on the canvas?” or “are you going to use big pieces or little pieces of tape?”) and then step back.
Your job, as parent to this creative being, is to facilitate the art experiences—to make the art materials available, and to make sure there is a space somewhere for art making, whether the kitchen table or a dedicated art corner. Your job is to gently guide when guidance is called for and to step back and simply watch when that is called for. Your job is to say, “Wow, look at that design! I see zig-zag lines and circles,” or “can you tell me about your painting?” or even to ask “what if” questions. “I wonder what would happen if you painted with these watercolors over your crayon drawing?” “What if you glued those buttons to the wood?” Your job is to hang the finished painting on the wall, with pride, or to help your child wrap it up as a gift for Grandma or his teacher.
Your child’s job is to create. His job is to use the tools and the materials that are available in a way that feels right to him. To see what happens when he rolls paint-covered marbles around on paper. To scribble and draw and ascribe meaning if he likes, or none at all if he doesn’t. His job is to see what color yellow and red and green make when all mixed together. To squish the paint between his fingers if he needs to or to keep the paint from touching his skin if he’d rather. To draw as big or as small as he can. Your child’s job is to explore the potential of the art materials and tools and his own body. And to do it the same way ten times in a row if he needs to or to do it a different way each time if that is what he needs. As he explores the potential of art this way, he will be gaining important creative skills, while most likely having lots of fun.
A Modern, Kid-Painted Canvas
A stretched canvas, any size, available at art supply stores
Nontoxic, washable tempera paint (you can also use watered-down acrylic paint)
Newspapers or drop cloth to protect table or floor
Optional: Acrylic sealer
Before beginning, protect your work surface with newspapers or a drop cloth if necessary.
Set out the stretched canvas, a roll of masking tape, and a pair of child-safe scissors.
Let your child create a design on the canvas with the masking tape. Any design is fine, from little pieces of tape all over to a criss-cross weaving of tape, from stripes to a stick figure.
Note: Younger children may have trouble tearing or cutting the tape themselves. If so, you can either cut pieces for them of the length they desire, or hold the tape taut between your hands for them to cut.
When your child is finished with his tape design, instruct or help him rub the tape down with his fingers or the back of a spoon so all the edges adhere tightly to the canvas.
Now, get out the paint. You can put each color in a dish with a paintbrush or use an old muffin tin for separating colors.
Your child can then paint his canvas, including the sides. He can paint over the tape or he can separate the colors between taped sections.
Let the painting dry thoroughly, at least overnight.
Your child can now pull up the tape to reveal the tape-resist design he created. How exciting!
Optional: You can cover the painting with an acrylic sealer to help protect the painting.
Hang the painting on the wall or give as a gift! Stretched canvases can be hung as is or framed. You may need to attach picture hanger hardware to the back before hanging.
Jean Van’t Hul lives in the mountains of North Carolina with her husband and two young daughters. She blogs about children’s art and creativity at The Artful Parent.