Monday, April 11, 2011

The Case for Creative Tots

"We are all creative, but by the time we are three or four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else."  (Maya Angelou)

Every few months my husband and I have the same argument: while he likes a neat, clean, and orderly house and children, I allow the girls ready access to a wide variety of art supplies.  On any given day Elana may arrive at preschool with her face covered in water color paints pronouncing that she is a butterfly.  On other days she will "tattoo" her arms with Crayola markers, claiming that she is now Sleeping Beauty.  On a few occasions she has experimented with a permanent marker (which contrary to its claim, is not actually permanent). 

Ted is horrified by all of this.  He doesn't like real tattoos and is nearly as annoyed with temporary ones.  He thinks that crayons are for paper, and chalk is for the sidewalk- across the street.  However, I believe the power of self expression, and what better way to express yourself than through magic marker?

I love art.  For years I have been knitting, painting, throwing pottery, beading, and writing.  Doing this with my children allows me to play with them while keeping a sense of self.  I can sit at the coffee table drawing with crayons for hours (okay, maybe a 40 minutes) without feeling bored or exhausted.  The girls know that mommy will always eagerly paint with them, even before I've had my morning caffeine. However, a request for me to play Rapunzel will be met with an "After I do the dishes, wipe the table, clean the toilet, pluck my eyebrows, and fold the laundry."

Creating art does not necessarily mean drawing a picture of a rainbow, or sewing a functional garment.  For toddlers, art is the experience of feeling (or smelling, or tasting) the media.  Experiencing new textures allows their young brains to develop, and what better way to experience them than by using all the senses at once?  In my house there is never an end product in mind, that is why my children often look like this:

For all of the parents that are still skeptical of allowing their children free reign with some poster paint and a brush, remember that creativity teaches children to be independent, to find adventure in a room of cardboard boxes, and most importantly, to play on their own.

Art is an extremely crucial aspect of learning for toddlers. Not only does art teach children about colors (and that mixing colors creates new shades), shapes (which eventually lead to actual objects), and
fine motor skills, art allow children to develop problem solving skills.  Producing art requires that children learn how to make choices, think independently, utilize their imaginations, and explore nonverbal forms of communication (and I am always a fan of nonverbal communication!).  As Dr. Charles Fowler, a key spokesman on behalf of arts in education, said, "The arts invite students to be active participants in their world rather than mere observers of it."

Creative arts also offer children an opportunity to realize their emotional needs and find ways to articulate those feelings to others.  For centuries art has been used by therapists to help children express their worries, fears, and wishes.  Art also teaches us how to be empathetic- by allowing us to understand our own emotions we can better understand other people's feelings.

Shirley Brice Heath, of Stanford University, conducted a ten-year national study of children involved in community arts programs in under served communities.  She compared these children to a national sample and found that they were:
  • Four times more likely to win an academic award, such as being on the honor roll.
  • Eight times more likely to receive a community service award.
  • Three times more likely to win a school attendance award.
  • Four times more likely to participate in a math or science fair.
  • Likely to score higher on their SAT college admission test scores if they have been involved for more than four years of after-school arts study.

Now, you may be wondering how I store all these masterpieces my children create.  The answer is rather simple- I don't.  To me, it's all about the process not the product (and thank God for that, since the product is usually horrid!). I typically allow a new painting or play-doh sculpture to remain in sight for a few days, then I toss it into the recycling bin.  The kids rarely notice its absence; hell, they barely noticed when the cat left to the farm.

I do worry about how Ted and I will face the teenage challenges of body piercing and experimental hair color.  I foresee me cautiously approving all sorts of self expression, while Ted shakes his head in disgust.


  1. i'm with you, though I can't handle as much mess. Ferinstance, I handed Penny her first palette of watercolors a couple days ago, and felt the need to give a moment of silent apology to the pretty, bright, individual colors -- knowing they'd soon be a uniform brown. I fight against this daily because I so like her to experience the creativity of mess.

  2. Thanks, I feel better about my kitchen table after reading this. When DD1 was tiny we used to eat most meals at the kitchen table. Then at some point, it became too much trouble to clear off the craft supplies. Now there's a big mound of paints, pens, crayons, craft paper and stamping kids on one side of the table, and the other side has their current sketches, which are sometimes done directly on the table because they were too impatient to wait for a fresh sheet of paper. We eat in the dining room.