Encouraging creativity in young artists

The process of play and experimentation is an essential part of creativity.

There are many ways to support creativity in young children.

There are many ways to support creativity in young children.

Have you ever visited an art fair? They are common throughout the United States. A community sponsors a day or two where artists gather to display and sell their work in booths, usually in a portable stall set up on a shady lawn if you’re lucky, or broiling hot parking lot if you’re not. The curious and the arts-inclined stroll past the colorful stalls filled with amazing paintings, pottery, collages and sculptures and the artists who created them. Pablo Picasso, a man famous for creativity and innovation, said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” If that is so, how can families and early childhood educators encourage our child to “remain an artist;” that is, to retain the ability to generate fresh and original art work and find new solutions to old problems?

First, we must give children opportunities to explore the materials of artistic endeavors. We must go beyond crayons and markers and make available many types of materials that allow children to experiment with color, shape, space, rhythm, sound and movement. We want to share materials that are safe for children to use, but also can be used in many different ways. For example, Michigan State University Extension recommends instead of limiting the paint materials to poster paint and brushes, let children use different types of paint and a variety of materials to apply paint such as small twigs, sponges, feathers or parts of their own bodies. Using different types of surfaces to which the paint is applied will result in different effects, too. When children experience a wide range of materials, they learn how to discover and repeat strategies they used to get the results they want.

The process of play and experimentation is an essential part of creativity. We use exploration and discovery processes whenever we generate fresh, original work or use the problem solving process. Whether we use paint, clay, wood, marshmallows and toothpicks or musical instruments, electronic media and sound, we are practicing the creative process.

Many researchers support the notion that exploration of art activities during unstructured playtime is the best way to encourage creativity. When children are able to choose which materials they want to use, how they want to use them, what they want to create and how much time they want to spend on a project, then their innate creativity is free to develop. In her article, “Creativity in Early Childhood; The Role of Educators,” Doireann O’Connor writes, “As all developmental learning in the early years is centered within play as a medium for learning, here too lie the foundations of creativity development.”

Adults need to develop specific attitudes and strategies in order to support creativity development in early childhood. Art educators suggest that it is important to maintain an open-minded attitude during creative play. Avoid telling children what to make or how to make something, and avoid asking, “What is it?” or, “Is that a bird?” Young children do not always have the intention of creating a specific idea or item when they start to create. If we require them to label their work or think about what they want to make before they make it, it may stifle their curiosity and creative impulses. Instead, it is a good idea to ask open-ended questions about what processes they are using or what they are thinking about as they work. Adults need to remember that, for young children, the process of making is more important than what they actually produce.

Gary OdmarkThere are more ways to support creativity in young children. Janet Pletcher, LCC Child Development and Early Education Program, and I spoke to some of the artists at the East Lansing Art Fair we recently visited together. These working artists shared a few common themes. One strategy is that adults in their lives shared access to a multitude of art materials and gave children time to explore the materials. Another strategy adults can use is to help children observe their world closely by pointing out interesting things to see, hear and touch. Taking a child to an art museum, a concert or dance performance will expose them to new sights, sounds and experiences. Children, like adults, then take these experiences and “translate” them into art work that has meaning for them. As Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, said, “The central act of adults, therefore, is to activate, especially indirectly, the meaning-making competencies of children as a basis of all learning.” A third strategy suggested by artists was a policy of “non-interference” to let children make mistakes because they learned so much from their “mistakes.”

Our trip to the Art Fair was an inspiring experience for us, not only because we were able to observe many families enjoying the creativity of others together, but because we were able to connect with artists and their experiences. We would like to thank the following artists for their insights and perspectives on the creative process: Gary Odmark, Carolyn Weins, Kelly Crosser Alge and Leif Sporck.

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