The art of creating: Why art is important for early childhood development

Art exploration is not only fun and entertaining, but also educational. Here are some tips for growing your budding artist.

Support your child’s artistic journey with these tips. Photo credit: Lenchensmama | MSU Extension

Support your child’s artistic journey with these tips. Photo credit: Lenchensmama | MSU Extension

Children are naturally curious. From the minute they gain control of their limbs, they work to put themselves out into the world to see how it all works. They explore, observe and imitate, trying to figure out how things operate and how to control themselves and their environments. This unrestricted exploration helps children form connections in their brain, it helps them learn—and it’s also fun.

Art is a natural activity to support this free play in children. The freedom to manipulate different materials in an organic and unstructured way allows for exploration and experimentation. These artistic endeavors and self-directed explorations are not only fun, but educational as well. Art allows youth to practice a wide range of skills that are useful not only for life, but also for learning.

Skills youth practice when participating in art activities include:

  • Fine motor skills. Grasping pencils, crayons, chalk and paintbrushes helps children develop their fine motor muscles. This development will help your child with writing, buttoning a coat and other tasks that require controlled movements.
  • Cognitive development. Art can help children learn and practice skills like patterning and cause and effect (i.e., “If I push very hard with a crayon the color is darker.”). They can also practice critical thinking skills by making a mental plan or picture of what they intend to create and following through on their plan.
  • Math skills. Children can learn, create and begin to understand concepts like size, shape, making comparisons, counting and spatial reasoning.
  • Language skills. As children describe and share their artwork, as well as their process, they develop language skills. You can encourage this development by actively listening and asking open-ended questions in return. It is also a great opportunity to learn new vocabulary words regarding their project (i.e., texture).

In addition to helping youth develop important skills, free expression is also good for overall health and well-being. Giving your child a creative outlet can help relieve stress and work through things happening in their lives. By encouraging artistic expression, you can help facilitate learning.

Want to support your child’s artistic journey? Here are a few tips from Michigan State University Extension:

Talk with your child about their work. It’s often hard to decipher a child’s drawings, even though the child knows exactly what it is. When we ask, “What is it?” we are saying that it should look like something we’d recognize. Instead, ask open-ended questions like “Tell me about your picture.” You can also describe specific things your child is doing by saying things such as, “You’re making short lines, I see you are using red, green and blue.” You can also describe the actions your child is taking or the materials they are using by saying things such as, “You are using a soft paintbrush, I noticed you are making small circles, you are using two crayons at the same time!”

  • Imitate your child. Instead of drawing your own picture, sit down with your child and imitate their actions. Make big scribbles, small lines or practice drawing circles. If your child is focused on what you are drawing or how “good” your picture is, they are less likely to be imaginative and creative on their own.
  • Provide choices. Gather a wide range of materials for your child to use like paint, colored pencils, chalk, play dough, markers, crayons, oil pastels, scissors and stamps. Mix it up by bringing in unexpected materials like Q-tips, dinosaurs, dry pasta or beans.
  • Support, don’t lead. Have you ever noticed that activities become much less fun when they are dictated by someone else? The same goes for kids—let them decide what materials they want to use and how and when to use them. Maybe they want to peel the paper off a crayon and use it lengthwise on the paper, instead of writing with the tip.
  • Keep it open-ended. Instead of sitting down with a specific plan or outcome in mind, let your child explore, experiment and use their imaginations. They might make a big mess or change their mind several times—this is all part of the creative process.
  • Focus on the process, not the product. Encouraging your child in the action of unstructured art helps them work with intrinsic motivation. It teaches them to express themselves freely, without worrying about what others think. If a lot of attention is given to the final product or we spend a lot of energy praising the end result, a child may be more likely to do things to get your approval instead of doing what they want to do. Part of focusing on the process involves encouraging effort; exploration and effort are more important than the end product. Notice their hard work!
  • Let it go. As long as a child is safe (i.e., not running with scissors), let them explore. They may spend the majority of the time sharpening colored pencils instead of actually drawing with them. Children learn through playing, exploring and trial and error. When we give them freedom to discover, they are learning to create and experiment in new and innovative ways.

Get your child creating and learning—all you’ll need is a paintbrush and an open mind.

For other articles on child development, parenting and more, visit the MSU Extension website.

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