Bridget Matros

Bridget Matros

The ubiquitous hand-print turkey—to me, a symbol of how artmaking during early childhood is trivialized, as it pertains to the serious stuff of developing (or crushing) critical aptitudes needed in the 21st century.

Preserving and developing the creativity of the young child through quality artmaking experiences—it’s a challenge for those of us who were artistically “squashed” or deprived during our critical years. It’s a tender task, so easily undermined by the well-intended comments of parents who share a “creative deficit!”

Here I’ll share some tips for the “parent issue”—I hope to talk with you about the rest in the comments below!

Making the shift of priorities from “cuteness factor” to experiential value in the classroom is an uphill battle. Teacher prep programs include “process over product” and “there’s no way to do art wrong” as general guidelines, but resources for putting those ideas into practice are scarce; resources, printables, and materials for craft projects that teach conformity, art-for-pleasing-others, and external guidelines over self-expression are everywhere!

What’s more, the latter is what parents (and school administration/program funders, etc.) want: cut-out pumpkins colored orange with black triangles glued on are a kind of currency for early childhood educators. 

In spite of what we know about creativity, without these understandable symbols of “art time,” parents can feel short-changed. When presented with her toddler’s painting, a paper soaked edge-to-edge in brown slurry, mom usually has one of two reactions:

“Oh you painted Mommy a pretty picture! What is it? A flower? It’s BEAUTIFUL!”

or

“Ohhhh. Thaaaanks.” (disappointed grimace)

We have some blind spots we need to fill for parents (or teachers, volunteers, ourselves) if we are to make a difference here and protect the naturally superior creativity of kids. As an educator, don’t wait for the first open house, or the first awkward conversation with a disappointed parent! Commit to some proactive practices to help parents get on board:

In a fall intro letter to parents, include creativity as one of the core capacities to be developed—not a “bonus.” Creative development completes a full set of skills every child needs. Not every parent wants their kid to be an artist; every parent wants their child to be a confident, creative problem-solver, able to express themselves in positive ways, to roll with changes and adversity, and to think outside the box.

Another point of buy-in: many parents respond to the idea of breaking the vicious cycle of the “scarred for life” moment, when someone somewhere told them they were no good at art.

Take the focus off the product by using the term “artifacts,” snapshots, or souvenirs for the art projects kids may bring home. They are traces of a process—probably a fun one—their child would love to describe.

Provide a road map of what to expect. Most adults know the developmental stages of learning to walk, speak, and read, but they expect a toddler to create “art,” or a child to “make something” the first time they use clay.

Provide a simple ages and stages chart like this one to normalize behaviors like scribbling, sorting, mixing, and yes, tasting. Show that “artmaking” doesn’t actually happen until after sensory experiences that are more “science” (cause and effect experiments and discoveries) to toddlers and first-timers.

Keep Post-it notes handy around the art area. Write one process-quote a day, for one child, and stick it onto the back of the work at day’s end. “It’s cold! And squishy!” can instantly reframe painting for a parent.

Print and chop strips of paper with talking points to send home with artwork: Ask me how I did this! What do you see on my paper? Talk about colors, shapes, textures, and size with me! Asking me “what is it?” could hurt my feelings. Ask me to tell you about my artwork! Sometimes I make things to please you, but artmaking should be for the artist! Ask me how *I* feel about my artwork!

Even just few of these at the start of the year can inspire a yearlong habit!

Teach what creativity really means and looks like. Offer feedback and praise that uses the term for things a parent might judge as wrong.

“Jeremy was the only child to think of folding the corners of the paper—be proud of his creativity!” Beware of tone—some parents put quotes around the word creative as a “polite” way of describing deviant behavior.

Respect the work you all do. Don’t trivialize the learning that takes place in your classroom if you want parents to appreciate the validity and importance of every activity of the day—including artmaking. The way you display work, talk about it, even the decoration of the room can elevate or degrade your teaching and the students’ experiences.

Yes, there is a joy and lightness about artmaking—it will shine through, even if we dignify the work by skipping the smiley-face bulletin board borders and post informative labels (not in comic sans font).

We need to challenge the “just getting messy” notion of process-based art activities and “make learning visible” as we do in the rest of the curriculum.

In addition to skills development, uniqueness, daring, pride, expression, experimentation, problem solving, imagination, independence, and persistence are all aspects of creative work worth highlighting.

8 Responses to “Getting Parents On Board With Creative Development”

  1. Jack Kilroy says:

    Our schools value conformity over creativity. In my childhood, coloring inside the lines and avoiding colors that clash were at a premium but with today’s proficiency test driven school curriculum and pressure on kids to excel at every endeavor, risk-taking in a creative process is rare indeed.

    • Bridget says:

      Absolutely. From economists to historians, the faction of voices insisting that a society that neglects developing the creative capacity is going nowhere fast has been marginalized. There’s a narrow section in the bookstore of folks jumping up and down about creativity, then over there you have the section of education books showcasing Reggio Amelia/Montessori approaches, alongside the Tests Are Killing Our Children section… yet we still can’t seem to put it all together! This is actually one of the reasons I don’t identify as an “art teacher” – rather, a creative development junkie/advocate/leader. I’ve said to low income parents, “he’s not going to be a famous artist? Ok. That’s not what I want. I want him to be able to adjust when he hits a wall in life. To think of another way and keep going. To cope with reality. To not resort to violence to feel empowered and seen.” The “survival skill” aspect of creativity goes a long way. I think we have to go there to overpower whatever machismo mentality it is that keeps the Arts on the “outside”.

  2. Ellen M. Thompson says:

    often think of you while encouraging kids (and instructors) to go free form. And, I quote you, about artists solving problems…happens all the time.

    I framed a watercolor Remy brought home form preschool, hung it in my kitchen, and totally love it, cuz, I know it’s probably hers, but could’ve been left on the easel where another kid added to it.

    always a privilege to watch you in the Art Studio for the 6 yrs we worked together…I remember esp the girl who was in your paper making workshop, and had parents who had her saying formal please and thank yous to you constantly, and how responsive the child was to your style-she had Down’s Syndrome, and you were treating her just like all the kids in the room.

    I think we should’ve been filming you during those days- I feel best practices can be tough to talk about, and modeling them is the BEST way for many instructors & parents to get it. Of course, you can also go on the lecture circuit, with a few short videos to show what you mean.

    Resilience is the new 21st century skill people seem to be stressing for kids in schools…more art, more music, more drama class, more recess should help. (I always stretched Kgn recess)

  3. Ashley says:

    This is a constant battle I am dealing with and unfortunately for me, more often that not it is internal. And to be completely honest, I am very disappointed with the work I’ve done this last year with my kids because I know I could be doing more…or less depending on how you look at it. As someone whose background stems from learning how to truly be an advocate for “hands on learning,” in play, art, etc. now that I am back to teaching in a structured environment in the school system it gets to be harder to implement the unknown and open ended when you want to be taken “seriously” as an “educator.” People already have a hard time respecting early childhood educators in the first place, and so how do I explain the intent behind “messy art?” Let’s take it even further, with two “whys”: WHY do I have to explain in the first place and WHY do I even bother? I honestly think that’s why I was so free spirited and receptive in the beginning of my work in early childhood: because I never considered myself a teacher. I didn’t necessarily want to be a teacher. I was always an interpreter or more recently what I’ve labeled myself as: a facilitator. But for some reason, once I took on the title of a “teacher,” things changed. There are observations and deadlines and key developmental indicators that I am supposed to hit and then it takes away from what I enjoyed so much about working with children. When I didn’t see myself as the “teacher” I looked at working with children as an experience of exploring to be had. Of course they were learning, but without the pressure. Once my mindset changed, mostly because I wanted to be taken “seriously” by other “teachers” and parents and society in general, I suppose (although that’s a little dramatic), the experience for me dwindled and it became more of a lesson. I have to plan a lesson. Plan a lesson. And that lesson needs to stay within the lines. Before it was assisting in an experience. It’s hard to do that now.

  4. Bridget says:

    Ashley – I hear you! That false divide we experience between learning through doing and learning through “being taught” in explicitly directed ways gets to all of us! That’s exactly what led me to include the piece about taking our work seriously -
    the more we learn the academic-speak to what we *know* is valuable, the more able we are not only to “impress the constituents” but also to feel more confident in the validity of our work as facilitators.
    It’s worth the exercise of getting together with a colleague and observing young children/toddlers doing a process-oriented activity, like exploring paint. Play sociological observer and jot down some of the “real” learning going on.
    Do you have an actual list of learning objectives you want or need to accomplish in your line of work, or is that an abstraction? If there is a list, print it out. Have it in front of you while kids are exploring. What’s missing? How can you intervene to create an opportunity?
    You may find you ARE hitting those points!
    We adults have split out “play” and “learning” selves to the extent that it’s hard for us to observe the fun, open-ended stuff with out “teacher” hat on. But what might feel like a “break” to us is still hard science and unstoppable development for the littles!
    It helps me to dig into reading by people who “get it”, when I’m losing sight of the experience-as-lesson. Susan Striker’s book, “Young At Art,” is something you definitely want on hand!

    If you have an educator-buddy, you could also reflect on a “lesson” you crafted, and look at spots where you could crowbar some open-endedness/creativity into the process while still staying on the trajectory you need to reach whatever the learning objective was.

    It sounds like your inner compass is steering you right – leaning away from the call of the Rigid Lesson Teaching that sucks in so many new teachers! It IS an uphill battle… but you know: when you’re feeling joy and the wonder is contagious, you’re doing it right. Just go back to the experience afterwards, and find the learning that was there all the while!

  5. Eric Guerin says:

    Great article! Led me to your blog that I didn’t know about… Instant fan! Now how do I approach my son’s preschool teacher (and coworker!) to show her this?

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  7. Dawn Kelly says:

    Great and nice blogs. It’s also very interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing this kinds of blog.

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