A few months ago, I came across an article on social media that really set me off.

It was extolling the benefits of process-based children’s art, but at the same time, completely bashing any type of children’s craft that results in a product.

This sent me leaping up onto my living room soapbox because sometimes I just get so sick of people being unreasonable and existing solely in the lands of the extremes with issues like this.

Am I the only one who is able to completely rely on soapbox-jumping for my personal home workout routine? Because if it’s not kid’s art, it’s screen time, or nutrition, or vaccines, or early childhood education, or…

Sometimes I just wonder if common sense has become extinct – why can’t we all just remember the old adage of “everything in moderation” along with the fact that oftentimes there are positives to be found on both sides of a controversy and that even too much of a really good thing can kill you. (Ahem, water!)

Are schools squelching creativity?

Now, there is definitely too much emphasis being placed on specific product creation with kids (especially in schools). You could walk the halls of my former school and

You could walk the halls of my former school and pass window after window filled with 24 identical construction-paper owls, or roam through the science fair and see 38 neat, organized, and otherwise perfect science projects, or judge the annual pumpkin-painting competition and ooh and aah over the amazing ways these pumpkins were transformed into complex works of art.

But then you’d get to my classroom, whose window displays looked like a hot mess compared to the others – hardly any examples of the students’ work looked the same and you might even struggle to interpret some of the products at all.

Or you’d see my class’s science project in the library — which would contain all the necessary information and gosh, it’d be colorful and eye-catching, but the display board would contain handwriting from 12 different 7-year-old hands along with the color-coordination of a 2-year-old.

Or you’d approach our classroom pumpkin. It would be sitting there in the “judging patch,” amongst perfect re-creations of whatever was “hot” at the time — replicas of angry birds or minions or some such thing — and then there would be our double-sided Wilber/Charlotte creation (what we were reading at the time), with wild, scraggly pipe-cleaner legs sticking out from the edges, offset googly eyes glued on haphazardly, and paint slopped around the thing like only little second-grade hands can do.

The point is, the emphasis is so often on children being taught to replicate instead of create. They are told that there is a “right way” for a snowman to look, not that that there is a “typical” way for them to possible follow – or deviate from.

How to avoid extremes

These lands of extremes fail children completely. One camp is full of boring, cookie-cutter crafts that squash all creativity and should only hail from towns like Stepford, while the other camp lacks even the slightest bit of direction or boundaries, something that all children need and thrive in.

Why can’t kids be presented with a project framework and then have the freedom to take that thought wherever they want?

For example, Gv and I read The Princess and the Pony last year for one of our Monthly Crafting Book Club projects. We decided to create a princess out of a pinecone and since Gv had shown some interest in paper dolls at about that same time, find a way to integrate those into our project, as well.

Those ideas provided the framework for her creations. She could have used paper, or yarn, or googly eyes, or pipe cleaners, or tissue paper, or scraps of cloth, or whatever else she might have come up with to turn that pinecone into a princess, but she still had some parameters to work within while she did it.

We knew we wanted to design sweaters for the paper dolls (read the book and you’ll understand), so that was the framework, but whatever Gv decided to do to decorate the sweaters was up to her. She colored some, drew designs on others, and then used stickers for a few, which I never would have thought of.

Kids actually do like to make something, but they just want to do it in their own way – and be allowed to squish the paint between their fingers and paint freckles on their face along the way!

Why can’t we think of art more like a journey? Even if you want to get from point A to point B, there are usually a zillion paths you can take and still arrive safely. Or maybe you head out the door to go to the park one day, but decide to take a detour to the library instead and never actually take a turn on the swings, after all?

Sit down and do art projects with your kids. Talk about what you’re doing so they understand how your creative process works, but don’t make them do things the same way as you.

“I’m giving my snowman a carrot nose and button eyes and a scarf and mittens today, but another time, maybe I want him to look more like Frosty, with eyes and a nose made out of coal and a pipe and top hat.”

The alternative can be frustrating

It seems like process art is synonymous with “no model.” Without this, a task is just frustrating. G took Gv to the library yesterday for a “Teddy Bear Picnic” event.

It was very cute, but G said that none of the crafts were demonstrated or had a model, which either led to extreme frustration for the children (he said many were crying) or parents completing the craft for their child.

Of course, Gv just did her own thing, which mean cutting up the cootie-catcher sheet into tiny, un-usable pieces and covering her bear with random things that appealed to her, regardless of whether it made it look like a bear or not – but you know what?

She came home telling me about it and had fun and enjoyed the theme and loved the process of choosing her own foam pieces and gluing them on!

Here’s an idea in the middle

I’ll leave you with an idea to try in your own family. Every few months, we come home from church and decide to have an “art afternoon.”

We drag out all the art supplies, which include “real” art items like pastels and acrylic paints as well as “everyday” items like crayons and markers.

Then we just create – but we follow a framework.

We try to make something that relates to church that day. It could be a specific Bible verse, or a story that was told, or the feeling of a particular song, but we use that thought as our jumping-off place and then see where it takes us.

Think of this more like a writing prompt, something to get the creative juices flowing and provide a safe space to fully explore — in whatever manner you and your child decide.

Talk about why you chose the mediums you did (“I’ve never used the oil pastels before, so I wanted to see what they were like”) and how you’re figuring things out with their use (“I’d like to mix two colors on this one spot. I wonder if these will work more like crayons or watercolors?”)

Describe how you deal with mistakes (“Well, I was trying to make a bird up in the sky, but it didn’t turn out well, so I’ll just turn it into a cloud, instead.”) —  a la Bob Ross and his happy little clouds.

When everyone is finished, point out how even though you all started off with the same general idea, it resulted in unique creations. (Just like the owls in the window of my classroom!)

Don’t give up product projects completely.

Just change how you get there.

Kids can make an owl to display, but let them make that owl out of whatever they want (beads, feathers, paper, etc.) and have the freedom to orient the owl in whatever setting they want — or allow the owl to be flying with its feet full of dinner.

This will take a lot longer than merely assembling pre-cut pieces, but it will better clarify each child’s connection to what they learned.

Try to take a craft product and turn it into a creative process.

“Now that we’ve read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, let’s make our own caterpillars. Do you want to use paper circles or pom poms (or something else)? How many do you want to use for the body? What should we use for legs and eyes?”

Now that you have a plan for encouraging your preschooler’s art skills in a flexible, open-ended manner, head on over to read Awesome Preschool Art Resources You Need to Know About on my blog today for some great tools that will help you help your child develop creativity and artistic facility.

Which camp do you fall into with this issue? I’d love to hear! Either leave a comment below or email me at lisahealy (at) outlook (dot) com.

Lisa Healy

Lisa Healy

Lisa Healy is a former competitive figure skater, coach, and elementary teacher. These days she spends her days speed skating after her three-year-old and blogging to tell about it at Syncopated Mama

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