“Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.”—Roger Lewin
Writing this blog over the last four years has given me the opportunity to share what I have learned in my thirty years of teaching art to children. My goal has been to support the creative process in art education. Since I first started teaching, there has been confusion in separating the terms “arts” from “crafts.” Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they have two different meanings. Art is a process of self-expression where children explore and discover, producing unique and original results. By comparison, craft is a form of imitating that produces a predetermined outcome, without the need for creative or original thought. Crafts develop manual dexterity and have their place in after-school activities and summer camps, but it should not replace art in the classroom. Each child is unique, therefore successful art projects need to allow for a wide variety of solutions. Crafts and lessons presented with step-by-step instructions or pre-made cutouts are uninspiring and lost opportunities for children to develop their own solutions–imagine all the self-portraits shown above as perfect pre-cut circles!
How does one teach art without inhibiting creativity? How do we find the right balance between providing instruction while still allowing freedom for each child to find his or her own vision? Here are some things that I have found successful in nurturing creativity in children.
- Keep in step with the child’s natural artistic development by planning projects that are age-appropriate and using materials that will not interfere with concentration. For instance, liquid tempera paint is immediate and free-flowing compared to dry blocks of paint which need to be repeatedly rubbed each time the brush is loaded.
- Demonstrations are often necessary to help the children understand certain processes. However, they must be done in a way that does not set up preconceived solutions. For example, if the teacher draws a picture of a tiger in demonstrating a project with the theme of animals, children’s minds become so filled with that particular image that they are likely to be inhibited; their abilities to think of their own solutions are hindered; and worse, they often attempt to imitate the teacher’s drawing. This problem can be easily avoided by using unrelated subjects (even as simple as geometric shapes) for the demonstration.
- Looking at examples and pictures can add to the children’s confidence and help them become more aware of characteristic details to embellish their art work. Keep their minds open to their own interpretations by using real-life images, rather than other artists’ renditions. The exception is art history which is a great way to introduce children to new ways of working. Rather then just looking at the art work, concentrate on how the artists use their tools and materials. Have the children experiment with the style and technique of the artist, using materials that offer experiences as close as possible to those of the artist. For example, using thickened tempera paint in place of oil paint will give the child a basic understanding of the process that the Impressionist painters used. Avoid “tricks” that only yield similar effects to the artist’s style—although rubbing crayon over sandpaper will replicate the appearance of Pointillism in a Seurat painting, this shortcut bears no resemblance to the labor-intensive process of creating an entire painting with dabs of paint. When the project is completed, discuss with the children their feelings about working in the artist's style and if they would consider using what they have learned in their own art work.
- Quality art lessons focus on the processes of thinking, planning, and creating. Discuss a child’s work and share ideas, but do not make changes to the artwork yourself. Answer questions and offer advice in the form of open-ended questions that allow the children to think for themselves, giving them opportunities to come up with their own solutions and make their own changes.
- Complete each project before moving on to the next. This places value on the work as art and can strengthen the learning process through discussions and critiques. Most importantly, the children take pride and satisfaction in what they have achieved.
I want to thank the many readers who have sent me supportive and enthusiastic comments along with the wonderful images of their children’s art work. I hope that you continue to find this body of one hundred lessons helpful toward ensuring that art remains at the core of your program.