I keep a picture of my son, Nicholas, hanging up in my kitchen. It’s one of my favorite photographs of him when he was young. He’s a little over one year old and has barely learned to walk. He has yet to put entire sentences together; he eats his meals sitting in a high chair; he prefers warm milk in a bottle more than a cup. At his young age, he’s an explorer — curious about everything within reach. He has begun to realize the world is bigger than my arms that hold him. And that world both scares and interests him at the same time. At one year old, he is leaving his time as a baby and has begun to enter the toddler stage of child development.
In the photograph, Nicholas is standing at an easel bolted to a wall, and he’s gripping two big paintbrushes in his tiny, chubby hands. He has dipped one brush in bright red paint, and the other brush is dipped in blue. He is painting on paper clipped to the easel he can barely reach. I remember that day clearly although it’s been over a decade since the photograph was taken and he has created many, many paintings since then. But that’s the day my son painted for the first time, and I saw then what it meant for a young child to enjoy creating, simply for the pleasure and joy of it.
Nicholas looks serious in his picture: he is concentrating. You can see it by the way his lips purse and his eyebrows furrow. I remember him swiping the brushes against the paper while gripping them in his fists, sometimes painting with one brush and other times with both brushes at the same time. He’d pause to look at the paint on the brush, and I’d gently remind him to keep the paint on the paper, pointing to the easel to make sure he knew what I was saying.
His painting consisted of red and blue brushstrokes across the bottom of the paper, because that was as high as he could reach. I saved the painting in a plastic bin somewhere in his bedroom closet: not a particularly beautiful painting, definitely not an important subject, but it is significant. It marks a few moments in which my son wondered about paint.
Adults tend to speak a different language than children do when it comes to art and creativity. Most adults are motivated to create art because of the subject matter, while children are motivated to create because of the materials they’re given. Young children give little thought to what their project will look like when it’s finished; instead, they pick up a paintbrush simply because they are curious to see what happens when it is dipped in paint. They create art because the experience engages their imaginations. While children enjoy the process, sometimes adults are only interested in the end product.
Many well-intentioned adults spend time correcting and controlling children’s art until it is a neat and tidy finished product, which gives the illusion that the adult was a great teacher and their children are intelligent artists. When teachers tell children grass can only be green and belongs at the bottom of the paper, that the sky is blue and must be above the grass, or that people only have two eyes and they must always be drawn in the middle of the face, children receive the message that creativity doesn’t matter. Rows of paintings that look exactly alike drying in a preschool hallway show that those children had little or no opportunity to use their imaginations.
You do not have to teach children to be creative -- you just have to let them be creative.
Pablo Picasso once said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” If children are not allowed to explore the process of creating art, they will begin to think of themselves as unimaginative and not creative. They will forget that God made them artists right from the start — able to create without inhibition, with joy and curiosity.
For young children, the creativity and imagination happens when they feel their muscles move in their hands and arms as they swipe the paintbrush across the paper. They are curious about the paint and the brush. And then they wonder as they move the brush around the page over and over again, discovering how colors change with each motion.
Children see the paint colors mix and blend, and then mix again. They watch paint drip down the page, and they look at the paint that got on their hands. Maybe they’ll press their hands together and study what their hands look like after that. Maybe they’ll press their painted hands to paper and discover their handprints. Maybe they’ll put their hands in the paint cup and squeeze to feel the cool ooze of paint between their fingers. Maybe the child will call you to try it yourself. (And you should try it.) See what the joy is all about. Soon enough, as the young child develops and matures, the product will become important to her. Let children enjoy the process while they’re young. Placing importance on the end product too soon is like expecting toddlers to behave like kindergarteners — you’ve skipped an entire stage of development and placed unrealistic expectations on a child.
I had a group of children paint with me the other day. As one little four-year-old girl painted on her canvas, she said, “Did you know I am an artist?” And she happily dipped her brush in purple paint. “You were born an artist,” I replied, and I poured more purple for her.
On that day many years ago when my little son painted, he explored and wondered, and then he put down his brush and held up his arms for me to pick him up. He had painted simply for the joy of it.
Krista Barré is a wife to Nick and mother to three creative boys. A believer in the imagination-building power of paint, Krista has spent the past 15 years bringing art experiences to children of all ages in various schools and programs throughout Middle Tennessee. Her favorite paintbrushes include flyswatters, bubble wrap, marbles, and a mop. Krista loves a good book, a good joke, and any art project for children that involves massive amounts of glitter and glue.