‘All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.’
Pablo Picasso got it right. You only need to watch a small child exploring finger paints for the first time (often using any other part of their bodies than their fingers!) to understand that every child is born an artist. They are not constrained by fears of getting it ‘right’ or limited to the product of someone else’s imagination. They don’t care what the finished product looks like, they don’t even understand that there can be such a thing as a finished product. They are only concerned with how the paint feels squidging between their fingers (or toes!) and how the movements they make with parts of their bodies when they are covered in paint leave marks on whatever they touch. To them the process is fascinating in itself.
So if we were all born artists, what happened to us? All too often we hear adults say ‘I can’t draw’, ‘I’m no good at art’ or ‘I’m no artist’. Somewhere along the way those carefree little kids covering themselves in paint and smearing it everywhere turned into adults who never pick up a paintbrush and consider themselves talentless when it comes to art. Something happened to those little children to convince them there was a right and a wrong way to do art and that they were failures.
Unfortunately it is often the special adults in children’s lives who play the biggest roles in convincing children they are not good at art. Those well intentioned people – parents, grandparents, teachers, carers – often do this without realising. When a child hears his mummy say ‘I’m no good at drawing pictures’ he begins to think that you can be good or bad at drawing. When a well meaning grandparent says ‘Not like that, you should do it like this’ the child learns that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing art. When the early childhood teacher prepares every detail of the creative activities in the classroom and ‘fixes’ the children’s mistakes to produce a perfect piece to send home to parents the child learns that they can’t do anything as well as their teacher does. Each of these experiences sends a message to our children that their own instincts and efforts are not good enough. The idea that art should produce something beautiful, of value and without mistakes becomes enshrined in their little minds. In short, they begin to worry about the quality of the finished product instead of enjoying the process they are going through. This is the beginning of the end of their creativity.
Encouraging creativity in early childhood means giving children plenty of opportunities for process art. This means giving them access to a wide variety of open ended materials without step-by-step instructions and allowing them to explore them freely without fear of making mistakes, getting dirty or worrying about what it looks like when it’s finished. Any adults involved should interfere as little as possible. An ideal process art activity would include the children choosing their own materials and equipment and using them in the way they choose. There may be some inspiration or guidance given as a starting point but how the child chooses to interpret that should be up to them.
Very young children (up to 3 years old) should only be concerned with the experience of creating art rather than creating a finished product. Older preschoolers (4-6 years old) become more interested in completing projects with a certain finished product in mind and they should be encouraged in their endeavours while still being able to use their own imaginations as much as possible.
We should also be careful about the language we use when describing children’s art. Instead of asking ‘What is it?’ which sends a message that art should represent something we could make statements about what we see, such as ‘I see lots of red lines swirling around the page’. Instead of saying ‘That’s a great picture, you’re really good at drawing’ try ‘I love how you used wiggly lines here and how the blue and green have mixed together over here’. This emphasises the effort the child has put into the piece rather than the finished product.
Training ourselves to approach art activities and the language we use around them differently is not easy and it will take time. But if we don’t try to break the cycle we will only succeed in raising another generation of adults who feel that they are no good at art. So take a deep breath, relax, take a step back and let those kids free with the art materials!