Thursday, March 1, 2012

Creativity + Caring: Nurturing Independence thru Art

Happy Month of March to EVERYONE!!!
What an amazing response to my article last month on the differences between 'process and product' in children's Art.

My post today will be a follow-up to those thoughts and the many passionate communications from readers that have been shared via Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, on the article itself, on the follow-up article on my blog, from emails in my inbox to old school phone conversations!! I'm amazed and encouraged by all of the insight shared and feel the discussion deserves further expansion.

Quick review: I am an advocate for 'PROCESS' experiences with young children.

To set the stage this month, let's hear from some brilliant people on this issue. 

As much as I like getting from A to B, it is the traveling EVERYWHERE that fascinates me the most. Thank you Einstein for that pithy remark and brilliant insight. Let's think about 'imagination' and fostering it. Can we develop imagination in the same way that we can develop muscle control?

Allow me to share the comment from our own contributing author Deborah McNelis, wonder-woman on all things connected to brain functioning and optimizing the brain for young children -- from her comment on my article last month, "The highest functioning brain areas are activated and are developed through the opportunity to create, imagine and explore. This happens when children direct the process!"

It is in an all encompassing comment such as Deborah's that reinforces me to continue speaking on this topic. Thanks for sharing Deborah. Now let's examine a few of the other comments left on last month's article.

I was truly taken aback by our contributing author, Ayn Colsh's sharing of her own professional experience in her comment, "Great post on a very conversational topic! I got into trouble in the very first school I worked at because I put children's art into the take home folders that wasn't "perfect". Those pieces were removed and replaced with carbon copy art work."

 Little did I realize that this discussion was the least bit controversial. I couldn't wait an entire month to respond here, so I continued the 'discussion' on my own blog in this article. I shared a couple of images of the sort that I thought Ayn was probably referring to: artwork that had 'imperfections' within the context of the project.

Oodles of teachers went on record to say that they ALWAYS allow children's artwork to stand 'as-it-is' to be their own.... to be displayed as completed by the child.
 And then it happened!
A whistle-blower reported in.

"I'm sorry, but I'm a preschool aide, and I've worked with a lot of teachers that "fix" the kids projects to make them look "better". The teacher I am with now, and I, only help when necessary (like squeezing glue bottles, tearing tape, etc.) I find it somewhat unusual that none of the teachers or aides or parents that have commented have admitted to "fixing". I guess none of the guilty parties want to comment about it! But, there are teachers out there that do it!"

This week I had a delightful invitation to visit a setting for YOUNG children here in Florida.
I arrived early to document the surroundings for my readers.

The first room I walked into was that of the youngest children -- filled with two year olds!
It had a BRIGHT and BEAUTIFUL bulletin board that attracted my eye upon entering.
Turns out that these bright paintings were part of an 'I-is-for-Ice cream' party. 

YEAH! Happy explorations with paint by two year olds!!!!

Then it happened.
I saw something quite suspicious.

What's going on here? What message are we sending to this child?
The subtext I get is, "you are not capable to direct this effort. I must help you.... or perhaps more accurately, I must 'do' it for you."

The director at this program, shared with me that she had pulled the parent helper aside after this 'ice-cream-encounter' for a little heart-to-heart on how they want their volunteers to interact during art time. So the learning experience was not all together lost. So there are parents 'guilty' of this 'fussing' over children's work.

Several of the comments left by directors eluded to this need to help 'educate' the parents on their role in allowing their child to experience independance, even if that meant experiencing some frustration along the way. Other directors commented that they would use my previous article for a portion of staff development.

Of all the many comments left directly on the article those that most alarmed me the most were from some of our most creative contributors.

Many of the direct conversations that I have had personally since last month have revolved around 'creativity' and how it seems to 'evaporate' out of children as they grow older. I am wondering out loud here, but what if its not that creativity evaporates -- as much as children grow weary of having their work being overtly 'handled and manipulated' by the adults nearby?
  • What two year old wants to be directed when it comes to paint?
  • Why is it that the adults are 'fixing' art for children?
  • Is it a sense of control?
  • Is it a sense of competitiveness?
  • Is it a sense of unrealistic expectations?
  • Is it some sense of helpfulness that knows no boundaries?
Perhaps its time to return to an image I also shared last month. It was part of the 'homework' turned in for the celebration of the kindergarten 100 Day party.
                           Remember this image?


What does the kindergarten child learn in this piece of cooperative work with their parent?
What leads the parent to 'create' this type of response on behalf of their child?
Again I wonder about 'competitiveness.'
How much parental 'competitiveness' do you see?
How do you address is?
Ye gads..... let's make a committment to allow children to own their own 'work.'
If we want children to be creative we must allow THEM to create!!!
With it now being the month of March, I know there will be adventures celebrating all things Seuss in many programs. I'd like to share this image of a bullentin board created by the mature PreK crowd in Mansfield, OH. When I took the picture a couple of years ago during one of my Author-Illustrator School visits I was thrilled to see that it appeared that the children had indeed created their own work.... that they had been given freedom in the creation of their stripe-i-dy hats, that they had not been micro-managed = that they had worked independently! PRICELESS! It can be done.

Here's an idea I captured last fall, from tiny wonders.
The very same concept could be followed to allow children to create spring trees.
Let them bloom.
Let them burst forth in the colors of spring, of a world returning to all shades of green!

Let's conclude with our two thoughts from Einstein on this topic.

Bookends on our easels.

The critical piece in my mind is how we foster imagination and creativity in the children we serve....
And how we encourage their independence in the creative process as they grow.

As always, we look foward to your comments and insight.
Please join the conversation in the comment section below.

****The concern over igniting creativity and reviewing the entire educational process as we know it was addressed earlier this week by Seth Grodin in his 'manifesto' which you can download for free here. His thoughts at "" look at our entire educational 'system' and speak of reform needed.
Required reading for those of us that dream on behalf of children.
Required reading if we want to build responsive and creative systems for education.

-- Debbie --

I invite you over to my personal blog at RainbowsWithinReach. I've had an interesting series on kindness lately. The newest post in that series has a 'kindness counter' you'll appreciate seeing. 

Yesterday's post was about an amazing 'system' to organize your pretend kitchen space..... teaching children the basics of cleaning up after themselves. You owe it to yourself to see the shelves of a Preschool in central Florida I visited last week.

The dot com that warehouses my CDs, picture books and DVD awaits as well.


  1. *it's taken me an hour to write this, with many deletions, trying to say the right thing*

    I just had a lengthy conversation with my Music Teacher next door about your post. This is going to be a lengthy response, so grab your coffee!!!

    My three year old comes home with work like what you have in your post. i LOVE is true and honest. when he gives it to me he tells me what it is (and i must add it NEVER looks like what he says it is, which is what i LOVE!!!) he gives it to me beaming, proud of his work...and immediately asks for me to "take it to work" (i'm an art teacher and have literal wall pollution in my classroom!!!ha!) or asks to hang it up. our kitchen cabinets are covered in toddler artwork and it makes my heart swoon.

    Somewhere along the way the kids lose that zest. They lose the care-free-ness of making happy mistakes and not caring what their work looks fact, my Music teacher and I have pin-pointed it down to about second grade. This is where the kids start resisting to "perform"(sing in front of others solo, act, dance, etc) and start becoming perfectionists in my classroom. Tears flow. Artwork is ripped. Tantrums ensue. It's heartbreaking to me to see because it has gotten SO MUCH WORSE in my 12 years of teaching.

    I'm blaming it on standardized testing. I'm blaming it on anxiety about right and wrong. While I MUST demo a project for the kids to see the process, a good 80% of them end up with work that looks exactly like mine. It doesn't matter what I say,how I nurture creativity, or the amount of open-ended projects I give them; they DON'T WANT THEIR WORK TO STAND OUT. They have lost that care-free zest for creating. It's so sad.

    "Well that must be because those students AREN'T creative" then, right? Well, no. In fact, it's many of my high-achieving and gifted students who traditionally SHOULD be risk-takers who don't. Open-ended projects are filled with questions. They just don't know what to do.

    "Well then it must be because you stifle their creativity by telling them their work must look like ______ or that your expectations are too high". Nope,not that either. In fact, I have NEVER told a student their work looks wrong, or bad. They bring it to me for affirmation and I tell them it "LOOKS GREAT!!!!!!"---then they bring it back to their seat and say "Mrs. Davis said my work looks great!" and their table-mates say "Really? You didn't do X,Y, and Z right".


    I've also seen kids toss their artwork in the trash before heading out the door and it hurts me. Hurts me that they just spent two weeks working on something that they've put effort into and they're not proud enough to take home and show their parents. What happens when they take it home? Do parents ask "What is THAT"? Do they say something durrogatory? :( Where did I go wrong? How can I make them proud?

    I'm probably NOT the norm here, I'm sure you'll get tons of praise for PROCESS! PROCESS! YAAAAAAY PROCESS! and I totally agree! Ilove process. I love seeing little minds work. I love kids at easels with smocks and a dream. I love tongues hanging out in concentration.

    Most of the audience here is (obviously) preK, Montessori, and homeschool...with a younger audience. I just wanted to share my perspective as a teacher of 800 in a public school K-5....I'm sure I'll get lambasted in the process. Please don't blast public school, either. I'm just saying that somewhere along the lines they lose it...don't know where and don't know why. I'm praying it's not me.

    1. As a toddler teacher, I love you. That is all.

  2. Good for you Joanna! I'm the mother of two pre schoolers and I would never "fix" any of their art but I know it happens all of the time! So sad. I try to set an example by having fun with art myself. I've already caught my 4½ year old tell her younger 40 month old brother that things aren't the "right" color (grass s/b green etc). My reply is always the same... "Follow your imagination...remember... YOU are the artist... let you inner artist SPARKLE!" :)

  3. Good Morning. I have been struggling with similar feelings on the subject of children's art. I care for 4 kids in my day home ages 4, 3, 1 1/2 (my son ) and 1 year old. I have a hard time finding activities that can keep all 3 occupied and I try to vary the goal of each project according to their ages. Pinterest is both wonderful and frustrating with the sheer abundance of ideas for things to do. I get quite overwhelmed with what I want to do and what ends up happening. I believe that each piece of art that is produced is perfect and I try not to discourage creativity. But what happens when the plan to draw snowmen using shapes that I've cut out gets turned into an unrecognizable collage. Isn't the point sometimes to teach them how to follow instructions at least to a point? What I've ended up doing is creating my own along side of the kids and talking about where I'm gluing or drawing and why I am putting it there. The older kids seem to like to copy some days and completely ignore m suggestions other days. Regardless of the outcome the art gets put up on our art wall with their name and date so they can admire it later. I feel like lately parents are trying to be so direction orientated in play time and craft time. I do try and have some directed play but I find the kids like to create their own stories and rules when playing. Like I said, I'm overwhelmed with the blogs about how I can make my playtime themed and I just don't feel like it's a reasonable expectation for kids to play along. (as well as for caregivers to organize such elaborate play sessions) I hope I am both encouraging to my kids creativity and helping them to learn skills and follow basic instructions.

    1. Hey Amy!

      To add to your collection of resources, perhaps you may want to try this website on facilitating kid art:

  4. Another thing Joanna... My grade school art teacher, Miss Borino, was one of my favorite (most remembered) teachers of my (public) schooling career!

    Keep up the awesome work!

  5. Maybe I'm an extremist when it comes to art.... But, I don't agree that some of the examples you give are independent children's art. I think there is a continuum when it comes to process and product. My line of thought is ANYTIME you have an expected outcome- a tangible "thing" that the children are making.... it is no longer a process directed activity. There is an expected product. For example, the cats above.... I see that very much product orientated. Yes, the children had the opportunity to cut and choose with the stripes, but they all have red stripes and they all have glued construction paper. When you look at the product, even though the children were given a little bit of freedom, there was still an expectation that they would create a cat in the hat. My hunch is that it was not a child directed activity, and the idea of creating the cat was promoted by the teacher. (I could say the same thing about your "process" penguins. I am not advocating against some product driven activities as children get older and initiate the desire to create, but I think we push children sometimes slowly, sometimes very quickly into caring about the product... or losing interest in creative efforts.) I have a number of posts talking about process on my blog as well. (Product- A Celebration of the Process: Nurturing Your Inner Artist:
    Sometimes We Craft:

    In addition to working with children, I also work with adults. I try a number of techniques to help them regain their artistic roots! I have a few thoughts and recommendations for you... take what you need and leave the rest.

    Don't place value on the product. Rather than saying that you like a person's art work.... talk about the process- and the effort that goes into it. It looks like you really like "this technique" or I noticed that you created and be SPECIFIC about things they have done using the art terminology that is appropriate for the age level you are working with. Modeling this type of assessment of art with the children will also get them talking about famous artists too... What I really like to do with adults is share with them a wide range of famous artists paintings... and how all of them are extraordinary but they are all different, they use different techniques and have very different processes, but they are all accepted. There is not right or wrong way....

    Try blindfolding the children..... playing some soothing music and allow them to spend time "remembering" how much fun it is to just get lost with the paint... Try all kinds of out of the ordinary things to paint with... and you don't even have to have a permanent canvas..... So they know that you aren't valuing the product as much as the process. I've done this with easel painting and with finger painting.... When they can't see, they spend time exploring the process of painting again....

    Group projects are also great ways to ease the tension.... and I have a list of "no-fail" no matter what you do, the product turns out amazing because the process leads to a great product that I use to help boost confidence....

    I think there are a lot of factors that come into play with children, and I think it is getting worse as we no longer allow children to assess risk, to play and learn by exploration, and when we continually push content younger and younger in ways that are not necessarily developmentally appropriate.

  6. For me, the problem lies in not honoring development. A two year old should not be making anything that is supposed to be anything other than them exploring the media, the application process, which is at times, limited to interest. How will a teacher see authentic development unless they are given this opportunity? I can see with certainty that the 2's that made the ice cream cones could have cared less that it was in fact a cone. Rather, most covered the paper, experimenting with line, color and were done. We impose our views and values regarding art at a very young age in this country. Teachers should use this as an opportunity to open a dialog with a parent, "here is Kellogg's diagram of 20 basic scribbles, your child is doing such and such. This is normal for a child of this age, please encourage this by providing paint, crayons, colored pencils and other art supplies at home and allow the child to do what comes naturally." We have to speak up and not let the "push down" take away from what we know is right for children. Knowing the developmental process, speaking it, educating parents, and being true to it is the path. Children are losing something very valuable. As someone one wise said, and I cannot remember who :) "Pushing down also means pushing out" Are we pushing the process of development right out of early childhood? "This is what we know to be true, but hey, let's just teach kindergarten for 3 years."
    Seems like it sometimes...thanks for the post, it was great.

  7. As a parent of young children (2 & 3) I really appreciate this post. I find myself doing this sometimes and I've tried to refrain, to allow by children to drive their own creative processes. Even my 3-year-old becomes hesitant at times, wanting more instruction, more help, when, alone, she is amazing. I appreciate the examples and I feel a renewed resolve to let my children be themselves and not a copy of me or a re-do of what I'd like to be.

  8. Wow that is a nice designed, very creative. Creativity makes wonderful thing even in a simple way.

  9. Hi! I'm an art teacher with an after school program for grades 1-6 at 3 schools. Classes are multi-age,grades 1-3 and 4-6.
    I think one of the best solutions I've come up with is what I call "Freedom within a Framework". So while we're all working with the same medium and working on the same theme, everyone's working on their own work. For example, we recently did paintings with acrylics: the theme was Farmer's Market, and I brought in lots of photos of fruits, vegetables, and flowers for inspiration. The kids each chose a photo or two, and then created their own compositions. I demonstrated a couple of techniques, and they painted without having to compare to my example or even too directly to each other. I didn't just set out some supplies and tell them to paint whatever they wanted, but there were LOTS of choices as they worked. I shared art elements and principles, info about different kinds of brushes and more as they worked, so there was some skill building too.
    I agree that the Cat in the Hat example above is cute, but doesn't go far enough to be called process oriented. But it's value may have been in learning to use scissors, gluing,listening and following directions- all important, but not necessarily what I would call creative. The balance between process and skill building works when the classroom supports kids doing both.
    The best part of my job is when I hold up a student's work and ask them, "What do you think?" And then they get a big smile on their face, and say, "I like it!" And then I say me too!! I try to emphasize self reflection/assessment before letting them know I think they are awesome too! :D

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Love all the artworks! Will try some of it with my kiddo :) Especially the trees and the ice cream cone!

  12. I have been following your posts on process vs. product and I wanted to weigh in. As a teacher turned stay at home mom I see the importance of process art. I think children need to be creative and creativity does more for their intellectual growth then sitting and listening to a teacher talk. I also believe that some product art is done for a good cause. Practicing listening skills and directional skills are key and using product art makes it more fun.

    I do have to say that it is hard in a classroom to have art projects or art activities that align with the curriculum standards, where you can justify taking time to create art. That sounds ridiculous but in my teaching experiences that is what I faced. I loved to have the children make something to go with their lessons and believe that it helps cement whatever idea you are teaching. I found that if you had a project that had an end “product” that summed up the lesson, unit, theme, you were better able to explain why 20+ second graders were cutting paper and coloring, not reading or doing math lessons.

    I don’t think it is right and I do not condone that we are so test driven. I think what we need is to relax the stress of standardized tests (they have their place) and let children be children. Children need to be able to play and create without the confines of what is right and wrong. I do not mean morally right and wrong but they should be allowed to pretend the sky is purple and the grass is yellow.

    At the end of each school year I would have the children draw a classroom mural on a large piece of bulletin paper. It was a collaborative effort and while there were rules, example: you cannot draw another member of the class without their permission and you can only appear once on the mural. Those rules were more for potential problems that would arise. Some years it looked like an actual classroom and playground and some years it looked like a picture from a Dr. Seuss book. That was one of my attempts at process art. Each year they loved their work. It was the last bulletin board we did for the year and they loved to show it off.

    What needs to be decided in this situation is how do we proceed from here? What do we do? I don’t think it is as easy as asking teachers to change the projects. I think there needs to be an understanding from administrators that children need art, not just in the art classroom.

  13. Hi Deb,
    Great information and in my experience I have found a growing number of teachers AND parents who are understanding the importance of process based Art and process based LEARNING. In fact, what my Foundation and my colleagues are seeing is that when process based Art and process based Learning are embraced the students go beyond the standards. It can certainly be scary for someone who is immersed in product based Art and/or product based learning to make the switch and yes, this kind of learning does involve risk, but from my own experience the that of many of my fellow teachers, the outcomes are elevated and more importantly, the students/children involved begin to view learning as something they love to do.
    Affirmation.... Trust.... Risk....Growth

  14. I loved your post, Debbie - and I loved reading the comments as well! It's so important that educators are having these conversations. Encouraging children's independence in art as well as encouraging their independence in general is vital. I appreciated that you linked to Seth Grodin's post, too. These sorts of conversations give me a lot of hope for the future of education! I pinned your post to my Kids' Art Projects Pinterest board at

  15. I have a family child care with ages infant through 4 1/2 years right now. I encourage process oriented art. I rarely will put something out for them to copy. I think putting a sample out for them to copy takes away from their creativity. I think as the kids get older, like the 4 year old, they do want more project activities. I did do the Cat in the Hat that you have above. I wish I could show you how they came out. I put out the pieces for the project but also the collage scraps for them to use. None looked anything like the one I did. They learn that they can ask for what they want for their projects if it's not out. Because of mixed ages, I can't leave everything down within reach. But, they will ask. I enjoyed your article. Thanks :)

  16. I have work in a child care center for nearly 13 years and this is an on going issue with some of the teachers at the center. I think that as a society we have been taught that for art to be art it has to look like something or be something. I can't tell you how many times i have heard parents as a 2 year old "what is this" or throw there picture they spent a half hour working on in the trash because it is "just some scribbles". Children's are needs to be more open-ended and should be valued! They are SOO much more then "just some scribbles" It is so refreshing to see someone else who understands that!


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