Art is often seen as a solitary pursuit, but it can be a great way to spend time together as a family. With our busy lifestyles and electronic media as leisure activities, it’s easy to forget some of the simpler ways of connecting with kids.
Yet, the popularity of paint-your-own pottery shops and other drop-in studios illustrates how fun and universal the art-making process can be. It’s easier than you may think to create great art experiences for you and your family right in your own home.
There are so many benefits to exploring the art-making process with children. Mary Grissim, director of art education at Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art, emphasizes the development of the right side of the brain as a necessity, not a luxury.
“The assumption that children should wait until high school to take art, or that it’s just for fun, is incorrect,” she explains. “The earlier the better.” Making art not only fosters creativity, it gives children a chance to enhance fine motor skills and self-esteem, increase problem-solving abilities and frustration tolerance, develop observation skills and critical thinking, foster a lifelong appreciation for art and beauty, expand their repertoire for expressing ideas and feelings, and, most importantly, have fun with someone they love – you! Art-making gives family members a chance to appreciate one another’s individuality and to work together towards a common goal. Not to mention what it does for adults!
In addition to all of the above advantages, making art with our children allows adults a unique opportunity to be playful and creative – something many of us don’t get enough time to do in our work and in our daily lives. But, we can be allies together, building a towering sculpture. We can work side by side, observing and drawing a still life composed of items found on our own kitchen table. Or we can model for one another and paint portraits, giving each other 15 minutes of precious, undivided attention.
You don’t have to be an artist to be a great art-making companion. Your 5-year-old doesn’t care if you have talent in this area; the most important thing to her is that you’re spending time with her. When you set aside time for making art, you are showing that you value creativity – that it’s not only the quality of rendering that’s important, but also the expression of ideas that counts.
In this spirit, model for your child that the art-making process is fun and that there is no one right way to do things. Refrain from demeaning your own work or “fixing” your child’s, even just a little bit. Even with the best intentions, adults can really squelch creativity and imbue a fear of failure when they intervene. Lon Nuell, Ed.D. and professor of art education at Middle Tennessee State University, cautions parents about criticizing or judging children’s art. “It’s important to let kids know that nothing is wrong in art,” he says. “It’s right because they made it. Adults sometimes want pictures to look like something. Children scribble, then assign names to their scribbles, then move on to figures. It’s a natural progression.”
If your child has a wonderful piece with beautiful, distinct colors and you want her to stop painting before the colors get muddled and gray, ask her what she likes about the piece and if she is finished. Let her know that when you mix many colors together, they turn a gray-brown neutral color, and have her try it out on a spare piece of paper.
Then, if she still decides to mix colors on the piece, let her. Know that there will be many more opportunities for creating a piece to frame for the grandparents. What you have now may not be the final product you wanted, but it’s what she needed to create at this moment in her development – something infinitely more important.
Emphasize the importance of art and creativity by providing your child with appropriate materials. Grissim recommends keeping a treasure chest of art materials for your child to access whenever she’s in the mood to create. Get a box with a lid and fill it with construction paper, school glue, safety scissors, magazines, crayons and whatever other materials catch your eye.
As your child grows, you can add appropriate materials according to age and skill level. Some children will sit for hours creating multi-media projects, and the treasure box is a functional, easy way to contain materials. (Always supervise younger children with art materials, and use only non-toxic varieties.)
Allow time for a little silence. Observe how your child interacts with her materials and tackles her project. Is she tentative and reserved? Does she jump in with gusto? How does she problem-solve when the unexpected happens (when color-mixing doesn’t turn out the way she wanted or a piece of his sculpture falls down)?
Nuell reccommends that parents step back to let children do what they do best. “Early on, adults just need to take joy in what their children do,” he says. “It’s a fresh invention. Art is an innate human capability for children. We don’t need to teach them how. Speaking is partly learned through imitation, but art, they just do.”
There are great teaching moments that occur in the creative process. When things don’t go a child’s way, you can help her to be patient and think it through. Be an ally in identifying the problem and trying out different solutions. If all else fails, help her to take a break, have a snack or go outside, and let her pick up where she left off when she’s eager to start again.
Talking is a great way to connect while making art. Depending on your child’s age and personality, she may not need any new “material” for conversation! But for introverts, the very nature of the creative process provides something concrete to talk about.
Ask questions about the things your child depicts or the way she is using the materials. You can find out a lot about the way your child thinks and feels by asking about parts of her work, like which part she likes best or about how she decides to do things. Instead of simply making statements like “I like your horse,” try prompting for more information by saying, for example, “Tell me about this” You may find out in the process that things aren’t what they appeared to be (her “horse” may actually be a dragon!).
Nuell suggests that probing questions are good, but you need to know when to draw the line. “If you ask too many questions and interrupt a child’s process too much,” he says, “she may decide she’s done.” If your child is not responsive to your questions, allow a little time. She may need to focus on her work and save the discussion for later.
Get your child to teach you about the creative process and the art media. Ask her how to mix a color. Prompt her to demonstrate how she did a certain part of her piece that you especially like. Letting your child be the teacher once in a while provides a pleasant reversal of roles that can be refreshing. She gets to be in control and be “the expert,” and you get to listen and follow directions. This may also inspire a bit of empathy once you go back to your regular adult and child roles.
Grissim reminds us that it’s also important to look at art with children, and art museums are a great place for doing that. “Contrary to what many people may think,” she says, “young children are appropriate in a museum setting. There are certain museum manners, but how do children learn them unless they are exposed to that setting and have an opportunity to practice?” Grissim points out that there are many places to view and discuss art with your children: in public spaces, malls, schools, books, and in your own home. Looking at art is a great place for igniting discussions and a wonderful source of inspiration.
A great by-product of a family art experience is a piece of art that serves as a tangible record of the fun that was had. Art captures a moment in time that can be preserved and savored years later. Even more temporal pieces, such as sandcastles and outdoor sculptures made from found natural objects can be photographed and saved for keepsakes, display or gift-giving. Show your child that you value her expressions by displaying them in a special place in your home.
Jessica Young is an art educator and mother residing in Nashville.
Art-Making Pointers In Review
- Model for your child that the art-making process is fun and that there is no one right way to do things.
- Observe how your child interacts with her materials and tackles the project.
- Talk. Ask questions about the things your child depicts or the way she uses the materials.
- Learn. Get your child to teach you about the creative process and the art media.
- Look at art with your child – it’s a great conversation starter.
- Display your child’s art in a special place in your home.