Your refrigerator is likely covered with masterpieces.  You’ve probably had chalk, paint and play-dough on every surface of your home.  So it seems crazy to suggest that you’d need to take even a moment to encourage your child’s artistic side.  Don’t art and children come together naturally on their own?

Yes and no.  While most children feel less inhibited about art than adults, and are usually more eager and excited to create, sometimes obstacles prevent them from reaching their full potential.  And many times, those obstacles are A-D-U-L-T-S.

With good intentions, many parents have expectations about what art should look like and how to help their child produce it, but artists and art educators have a different perspective. 

“Art is a creative process, not a pre-planned product,” says MaryAnn Kohl, author of several art books for teachers and children. “Picture the difference. A child is given cotton balls, glue, scraps of paper, and a paper plate. These materials will become part of a creative experiment for a child, as they manipulate and explore the possibilities. There is no planned design or product. However, if someone were to require the child to make a bunny on the paper plate from a pre-designed bunny that is shown to the child as the example to follow, all creativity is lost and the project becomes a craft.” 

Kids certainly get to experience their share of craft-time.  Holidays, especially, seem to invite schools to line up the children to make these ready-to-assemble creations. And while there is some value in learning to follow directions during these activities, children are getting some unintended lessons.  

“All these crafts you see kids doing everywhere are sending kids a message about the end result,” says elementary art teacher Jason Moore.  “And we see that when we hear a child get anxious because she doesn’t know how to draw something, or isn’t sure what to do with the paint.  When a student comes in and waits for me to show him a sample of what he’s supposed to be working on, that’s when I know he’s missing the point.” 

So what should you be doing at home to encourage creativity and help your child feel comfortable as an artist?

First off, it's important that parents allow their child the chance to create purely in the moment, without an overarching plan for the end product. “The most important artistic experience we can offer a child is creating for its own sake,” Kohl says. “The final product will never be as important as the child's experience of creating it and the self-satisfaction of creating.”

Secondly, parents can help encourage creativity by how they react to their child's latest masterpiece. Perhaps the most challenging part of implementing this at home happens when your child brings you his latest masterpiece.  Most parents have an immediate reaction of “I love it!”  But is that the right way to respond to every art piece our kids show us?  Will they begin to churn out creations, only for the sake of our approval?  “Children need to learn to trust their own ideas, and learn from their decisions,” says Kohl.  “The satisfaction they feel should come from within, not from another person's evaluation.”

Many teachers and artists recommend a different reaction from parents.  Showing you like the piece with your smile and attentiveness is one thing.  But our words need to focus on something else.  Here are some suggestions:

  • “Tell me about this!” (This is so much nicer than “What is it?”)

  • “You used lots of purple on this page.”

  • “I see that you worked very hard on this.”

  • “Was this difficult to make?”

  • “What’s your favorite part?”  

The bottom line is that parents need to remember the basic difference between arts and crafts.  Art is spontaneous. Craft follows steps to produce a specific outcome. Art encourages creativity. Crafts are good ways to practice following directions.

So to encourage young artists in your house, gather the supplies, give no directions, let them create, and stand back to be amazed.