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!”
“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.