I'm Not Good At Art

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It was a typical day afterschool. The children arrived and together we enjoyed some time playing outside on a sunshine drenched afternoon. After returning to the classroom, enjoying a snack, and spending some time reading and relaxing, the children started to choose new activities to engage in. 

A few days earlier, the children had expressed a desire to explore drawing and the process of drawing. At the local library, I found some interesting books that explained the process of drawing. The author deconstructed drawing into a series of lines and shapes and encouraged children to explore combining these lines in shapes in different ways to create their own original characters.

As the children started drawing and experimenting with shape and line in their own way, one child expressed an interest in joining the group. In that moment the child acted freely and seemed excited to express themselves with paper and pen. Then it happened. As quickly as the child expressed a desire to create, they stopped and decided to not join the group. The child walked away and shared, “I’m not good at art.”

These five words hurt my heart. I immediately started wondering how someone so young could feel this way. I have to admit this has been shared by many children over the years. Often, adults feel this way too and shy away from creative expression. 

Why do young children feel this way? What experiences have influenced children so they believe only people who are good at art, or any other activity, should participate in it? 

Children’s natural tendencies are to test the boundaries of things. With opportunity, children love to explore, experiment, and create. In the book, Children as Illustrators, author Susan Conklin Thompson shares that, “During the creative process children play with ideas and materials, learning and practicing new forms of creative expression.” When children are left to make their own choices, what we observe in the classroom are children working in this way. Not only with traditional creative materials like paint, and clay but with all materials the children utilize during play. We know as educators that all of the children’s explorations and expressions are a form of creativity.

In the book The Language of Art, author Ann Pelo describes the word art wonderfully saying, “We begin to use the word art to describe a lively process of engagement with a range of materials. An engagement that is reflective, creative, and deliberate, and that deepens and extends children’s learning.” As educators we want to encourage creative expressions and reinforce the message to young children that art is about participation and exploration, but often a different message is delivered.

As educators, we sometimes confuse creativity with production. With good intentions we offer children opportunities to explore materials, but it comes with a catch. The materials may only be utilized in specific ways. Learning technique is an aspect of the creative process, but it does not have to lead to the creation of a product. 

In Children as Illustrators the authors share more insight into this topic saying, “Many early childhood educators fall into a trap of encouraging the young children in their classrooms to create something discrete that others can understand and appreciate.” In school and in school-age care this is often the message that is shared with the children. Much of the work that is offered to children as art is a process of reproducing the same work over and over, utilizing the same materials and exacting techniques. 

Teaching creativity this way can dampen a child’s natural instinct to explore and experiment with materials. As educators, our role is to help young children look beyond this practice by offering opportunities for young children to engage in the creative process. We can shine a light on creativity by encouraging free expression and exploring new ways of guiding children.

We can be the people who inspire children to act and think outside the box, like children do before school, directions, and rules becomes a part if their life. In early childhood, the world of materials is open, free, and theirs to explore and enjoy. Inviting children to explore materials and creativity is a practice worth keeping alive as children grow and learn.

What actions are you taking in the classroom to invite creative exploration?