Arts, Crafts and Nurturing Creative Development in the Early Years – Part 1: Mark-making


As a parent, I’ve found that one of the most challenging things is being patient as your child’s skills and interests emerge. It’s tempting to overwhelm them with all of the things they could be doing instead of meeting them where they are at.

I wouldn’t describe myself as an artist, but expressing myself through the arts is something that I enjoy. Early on, I recognized H’s beautiful imagination and her knack for patterning and dramatic play but I noticed she never seemed very interested in drawing or colouring.

Over the years, I gave her opportunities to draw and mark make (mostly with paint) but I never really pushed it. I knew that the environment was a big factor in how she approached art, and while ideally, I’d love to have a studio space in our home, that is far from coming into fruition.

A few months before she turned 3, she spent 6 weeks in a Reggio inspired preschool setting and she absolutely loved it. She still wasn’t as “into” art experiences as some of the other children, but I did realize there was a seed there, and it just needed time and the right type of care to foster it.


I knew that the chances were very high that any preschool/future schooling she attended would not have a good art program. In fact, traditional daycares and preschools are notorious for pushing traditional crafts on children. While there is nothing wrong with crafts in and of themselves, they do not replace art. Here is a very simplified explanation:

Art is a process. It focuses on expression and what is beautiful to the artist. Only the artist can determine if it “turns out”. It’s deeply personal and has meaning. It can only be explained by the artist. There is no right or wrong or good or bad. The same materials manifest multiple different ways. For example, a group of eight children given the same materials will probably process that material differently and an outsider will see eight distinct works. Conversations about art might include dialogue like “Can you tell me about what you are doing?” “I notice you are using…”

Crafting is often about the product. It usually does not come from the child but instead from someone in an authority position or sometimes a book who subtly or overtly dictates what is important. Children have a standard that they are trying to meet, and anything that differs from the standard is somehow deemed “bad” “imperfect” or “incomplete”. Even if an adult doesn’t explicitly comment on the craft, children may feel discouraged because their crafts don’t look like the prototype. The unspoken value of craft often become perfection, uniformity, and just following directions. Conversations focus on “what did you make?”


H picked out an animal crafting book from the library and chose to make a family of penguins to reflect her own reality (instead of a single penguin like in the book). She made minor changes, like giving some of the penguins two different-sized eyes because she liked it better that way.

As an educator, one of the first things I do when I walk into any childhood setting is scan the walls for children’s artwork. If it all looks the same, a part of me dies. I don’t want to send the wrong message: H attends such a preschool – children often engage in crafting and making “gifts” for their parents where everything looks the same. It lets me know that at home, I need to make sure I give her the opportunity to engage in more open-ended art experiences.

Here is a look at H’s journey with drawing. Most of the past photos are inaccessible to me at the moment as they are stored in my laptop which is not working. The collection of inaccessible photos also includes process-based work from when she was younger.

EDIT: The photos below were up in our house so I took photos of photos to share with you. They were taken between 10-28 months. One of her earliest mark makings was outdoors with sidewalk chalk. The fat chalks were easy to hold and there was no mess indoors. I also wanted to highlight that mark-making can happen outdoors (here it was in the sand and snow) and often turns into a sensory experience, especially with younger children.

In October 2016, H was almost 3 years old. This is one of the first pictures I remember her drawing that was understandable. I had been drawing her attention to human features around this point of time. She drew a picture of me. I believe that circle around my head is “curly hair” (which I do not have but she did). She quite amused at drawing herself with curly hair that swirled around her face.


These are her drawings from a few months later (you can read more about them here).



She was never one to enjoy colouring in colouring books (I never bought her any but she did have a collection she received as gifts from various people). And to be honest, she wasn’t “good” at it. I never wanted to be one of those parents that told her to colour in the lines because I didn’t want to limit her and undo her natural creativity from the onset.

Her lack of interest in mark-making may have stemmed from it not being satisfying for her. I noticed that she didn’t enjoy crayons but did enjoy paint and markers (probably because they actually left marks when she used them). *Sidenote: Using crayons is encouraged because you have to push harder and children develop muscles and control they may not with something that is “easier” like markers.

She also didn’t have the pincer grip (the correct way to hold a pen) down. I wasn’t sure if it was something I should teach her or just let her come to it on her own. So for the most part, I backed off. I’ll be honest though…I was nervous. I saw one of her same-aged peers who attended a montessori program colour exceptionally well within the lines. She had perfected the pincer grip at an early age. But I’ll never forget one day when she shared her work with me. It was a small colouring book- 8 pages of the EXACT SAME PICTURE of a bear. I was so confsued at first, and then I realized that in each page, she had coloured an isolated body part. I quickly realized that this is how the children were taught to colour in this particular program…”on page one, colour the ear; on page two, colour the arm…”  I was mortified. (EDIT: this activity was not used to teach colouring but to review previously taught/learned knowledge. I still believe that it required precise colour skills) Side note: if any of you have experience with the acquisition of colouring skills in the Montessori method, please comment with your insight!

Please understand that I’m in no way implying that traditional art doesn’t require specialized knowledge, technique or skill- it definitely does. But at three years old, I believe that our thinking around children and “art” should centre around creative development and expression.

Around the time that she was 3.5 years old, I decided to buy some oil pastels for her because they would leave marks easier than crayons, but I was hoping the new medium would be engaging. I remember that the first time I presented her with them, she resisted. So I did what we, as parents do when faced with such circumstances. I started drawing with the pastels. This peaked my daughter’s interest. I rememeber the first thing she draw. On a piece of black construction paper, she carefully selected seven different colours and drew horizontal lines then wrote her name. “This is my rainbow.” We were both proud and excited. I knew this was going to be the beginning of something.

As the year went on, I saw her more and more interested in drawing and colouring (in colouring books). Perhaps as her fine motor control improved and things started looking more the way she was intending, she became less frustrated. Perhaps it was because she befriended a girl at school who also enjoyed drawing. Perhaps it’s because she now had more of a narrative to share. Perhaps it was because now, she was developmentally ready.

Here is a family photo she drew in September or October.


Here is one she drew in January. It’s surreal to me how much detail she has started reflecting in a span of 3-4 months.


“Papa has buttons on his shirt. Mama is wearing a hairband. I have long hair. Y is wearing a bowtie.”

In mid-December, we went to go see a “Wizard of Oz” play.



A few weeks later, she started drawing characters from the play.



In early January, she wanted to draw together. I quickly drew a “yellow” brick road, which she soon turned into a “rainbow brick road”. She drew Dorthy and used stamps to create the field of deadly poppies.



A week later, we decided to stay home from preschool one day and H wanted to draw together. We used the packing materials from a recent furniture delivery. She wanted to draw together so we decided to draw trees.

imageShe asked me to draw some animals in our “forest”. Then, I asked her what animal she would draw. She started drawing a family of monkeys. “This is Mama Monkey and she’s carrying sister monkey and brother monkey.” I asked about their tails and she drew curly tailsfor them and their food (lots of bananas).


A few weeks later, she drew this abstract picture of a cat. This was the first time I had seen her draw a non-human form. She was working meticulously on this “cat for mama”. This also happened to be the first incident I saw her get emotional over her art. Her same-aged cousin decided to take the picture (without permission) and engage in her own creative process (use a pencil to poke holes and make shapes like circles). There was a serious emotional meltdown that followed. In the four years I’ve parented this child, I’ve never seen her so angry. She had nightmares and held a grudge for a few weeks. There was so much more going on for her than art- this was an extremely socioemotional experience for her. The two eventually made up and I know her cousin was not being malicious- she was just a child experimenting with her own creative processes and testing her limits.


At the beginning of February, H had a “bring a toy from home” day. She brought in a stuffed Elsa doll a friend had passed on to her a few weeks before that. She came home with this drawing of Elsa.


Earlier this month during free play, she drew a family of sunflowers and explained the details to me. “This is the Papa Sunflower, Mama Sunflower, H Sunflower and Y Sunflower. These are the stems and here are the seeds in the soil.” It wasn’t until a few days later when I learned they were growing sunflowers in their classroom (which is where this sudden interest and detailed understanding stemmed from).


It was evident that her technical skill was definitely improving. Here are some of the things I did to help postively influence her relationship with art and drawing:

  1. When she said she couldn’t draw something and asked me to draw it, I rarely did. I didn’t want to reinforce the message that she couldn’t draw. Instead I’d ask her to think about what she wanted to draw and think about what shapes it had. If she couldn’t remember what it looked like, we looked for the object in real life, or looked up a photo.
  2. I told her I would not draw for her, but I do accept her invitations to draw together. There is something beautiful to be said about collaboration.
  3. I encourage her to think about possibility (see the post on “Beautiful Oops” here). Similarly, here is a box we were using as a tunnel for Y. To help pass time, I suggested we try to transform the original text on the box into something else. I turned the barcode into a truck. She turned another barcode into a submarine. I turned the P into a snowman’s hat and the 2 into a goldfish.



In a future post, I will share some specific exercises/games/activity ideas that can be done with young children to foster their creative development.

Allowing for more art/creative experiences is definitely something I would like to incorporate more into the kids’ lives. I think it will be my next  challenge as an educator to give some more thought to how I can do this.


Ramadan 2017 – Post #8: Sharing Ramadan with Classmates


A few months after starting preschool in December, H expressed interest in wanting to invite all her school friends over, have a party, and celebrate with friends. I suspect that this desire was sparked by becoming more familiar with the idea of birthdays through cartoons and real-life experiences (attending other children’s birthday parties). Since her birthday falls in November and we have so far been pretty minimal about how we celebrate, I told her that we could do something for Ramadan. Now i knew that by the time Ramadan rolled around, I would be pretty freshly post-partum so I went from entertaining visions of healthy, beautifully-crafted fruit skewers, to rice krispy treats shaped like moon and stars to good-old-fashioned treat bags when the reality of post-partum life with two kids, my mom leaving and Ramadan hit.

While we still might get around to the first two ideas for another group of friends during Ramadan/for Eid, I realized they weren’t going to work for H’s school setting as the fruit wouldn’t preserve well and I think there’s a school policy around bringing in homemade food. So instead, we decided to make treat bags that included some store bought treats (granola bars and “fruit” snacks) and included some novelty items like bubbles and tattoos and dates of course. Since nature of goody bag didn’t scream “Ramadan” , I included a “Ramadan Fact Sheet for Parents” inside the bag as well as a simple message in English and French on the outside for the children (thanks to my dear friend Lynn for proofreading the French part!).

Creating and assembling the bags was a process for H. We divided it up into multiple steps and I heavily involved her (I believe that if my kids want to do something, they need to put in the effort!)
Step 1: We used dollar store paper treat bags left over from a past event and brown paper bags. We didn’t have enough of either type so we used both kinds. We decorated one side of the bags with stars and moons. To do this, we used a start-shaped cookie cutter and a sponge, roughly cut up in the shape of a moon, to stamp with using paint. H chose the paint colours. We let the bags dry overnight.
Step 2: I typed up, printed and cut the message from H and she glued it to the back of each bag. This allowed her to practice using a glue stick.
Step 3: We filled the bags one early morning while we slept over at her grandparent’s house. Since her cousins were still sleeping and I was trying to to discourage her from making noise (the whole house tends to sleep in during Ramadan). I held baby with one hand which meant it was up to H to really fill the bags.  H carefully chose a bag for each classmate and decided which colour of bubbles and which tattoos each friend should get. I was surprised at how quickly she memorized the quantity of items to put in each bag. We slipped each friend’s name tag inside their bag so that I could finish off the bags at a later time.
Step 4: I finished off the bags and we transported them back to our house. H took the bags to school and proudly distributed them. We made a list of other friends we wanted to give Ramadan bags too. I explained it may not be possible to make bags for everyone right now but depending on how things were around Eid time, we may be able to share some more things with friends we have missed. Regardless, I was pleased to see how caring and inclusive H is!
This process, which spanned a week, not only gave H the opportunity to practice fine motor skills through stamping, gluing and filling, but also allowed her to work on numerical concepts such as collecting, sorting, sequencing and distributing and contribute to socioemotional development as she got to connect her home life to her school life. She was able to share an aspect of her life that is important to us in a setting where it isn’t discussed (public preschool). She had the chance to do something nice as she thoughtfully created the bags and selected the contents and share them with friends- this was her favourite part! I was actually not planning to add names to the bags (I figured it was more work for her teacher) and randomly select who got what, but H insisted she wanted each child’s name on a bag. This demonstrates the joy and pride children feel when something is made especially for them and the joy and pride they feel in being able to do that for others. I hope H is always this excited and secure to share her identity and experiences with others.

Ramadan 2017- Post #6- Patterning and Paper Chains

Making paper chains is an easy way to decorate for various occasions. Since I wanted to give H a chance to practice more patterning, I asked her to pick three colours to create a pattern with. She chose yellow, pink and blue. Originally, I had planned to give her some scissor practice, but I couldn’t find any child-sized scissors so I was the one to cut strips from the paper she selected.
I asked her to come up with a patterning sequence. She chose pink-yellow-blue-pink-yellow-blue. Older children can be challenged to come up with more complex sequences.
She sorted the the strips into three piles to reflect the different colours. I showed her where to add glue and she started by adding glue to the strips, and I created circles. After a few turns, we switched and continued trading back and forth. Baby Gaga watched happily from the couch.
During this activity, we also were able to practice some french. Triggered by her comment, “Maman, fini!” we reviewed the colours she was using in french and I introduced new relevant vocabulary like “glue” and “paper.” In addition to patterning and sequencing, other mathematical concepts used during this process included counting (as she counted the rings and remaining strips) and measurement as she commented on the length of her chain saying “It’s like a long slithery snake!” This idea can further be extended by using the rings as a unit of measurement and asking children to estimate the lengths of various objects. For example, “how many rings do you think it would take to create a chain as tall as you?”
Creating this paper chain was also a way to foster H’s socioemotional development as it helped to build her confidence to attempt and successfully do new things. She was proud of her efforts and excited to hang the chain in our home. She couldn’t wait to show her papa when he got home from work.

Ramadan 2017- Post #3: Setting the Mood


I’ve started hinting to the arrival of Ramadan by making subtle changes around the house and in our daily routine. For example, I created this playlist on youtube of Ramadan songs to play in the background as we go about our day. It is a mix of upbeat child friendly music, some more ballad style songs and some multilingual tracks (English/Arabic/French). I played them this past weekend as H started working on the first of her decorations. It’s nothing impressive but I wanted to get some relevant content in one place that I could also pass along if anyone else was interested. Here is the link.

Note: I don’t let H watch the videos and can’t vouch for the content. I usually play them on my phone and allow her to catch the audio only.

While I was starting to prep the stained glass window craft activity by cutting squares of tissue paper, H wanted in on the action. So I hurriedly cut two shapes out of black construction paper (a lantern and a mosque) and showed her how to glue the tissue paper squares on the back. When she was done, we taped them to our window. I haven’t had time to prep more designs, but I did cut up extra tissue paper squares (that H helped me collect and store in a ziplock bag). H was thrilled with the results and wants to make more for our house and to decorate her grandparents’ house. We are planning on making more shapes, perhaps using stencils that can be found online to give it a cleaner and more uniformed look.

Depending on time, we may make a few of these kits to share with H’s cousins and friends. They make a cute DIY craft kit! Just package some pre-cut stencils, tissue paper squares, a glue stick and perhaps some string. I’ll update this post with a photo if I follow through on this idea. Also, if the kits are for older children, you could just include scissors along with simple instructions allowing them to cut out the pre-drawn stencils and tissue paper themselves.

During the weekend, we also started playing intentionally with H’s Arabic blocks. In the past, she has used them only for free-play, but now I am using them for more intentional learning (to learn and review the letters of the alphabet). It’s been quite an interesting process for me because since Arabic has some sounds that are different than English, I’m getting a feel for what sounds she has yet to develop/say correctly (sh, kh, dh, tha). Basic knowledge of these letters will lead to other games and inshaAllah eventually, the ability to read the Quran.

arabic blocks

Yesterday, we also went shopping to buy some things for the Ramadan Baskets I am planning on making. Generally, there is a lot of emphasis and excitement surrounding Eid, but I’m trying to make the whole month of Ramadan special. I want my children to be even more excited for Ramadan than Eid because as any Muslim adult who loves Ramadan can attest, there is a bittersweet feeling, a sadness that fills one’s heart as Ramadan winds down and Eid approaches. The other reason is purely practical: a few years ago, my husband and I decided that Ramadan is best spent engaging in acts and affairs filled with the remembrance of God, so we would strive to take care of our worldly preoccupations before the special month was upon us. For me specifically what that has looked like is not focusing on the retail aspect of my business during Ramadan (even though that’s probably the most profitable time for me) and planning for Eid gifts in advance.

The gift baskets I am making will be personalized for each child (details to follow) and will be the treasure children find at the end of their Ramadan Treasure Hunt (look out for an opportunity to download clues to use in your own homes/families in an upcoming post). I didn’t tell H what the purchases were for (luckily her nani is in town and was able to preoccupy her as I shopped) but I did get her input to make a few decisions regarding who would like what.

Today, I also started pulling out some of the books that aren’t all about Ramadan, but whose themes I will be connecting to Ramadan as it approaches. H picked a few to read and we will be rotating them with the books that are currently on her shelf.

image (20)

These activities and experiences have been a nice way for me to spend more one-on-one time with H. Generally, she just plays in my vicinity as I go about my life, but perhaps because both of us sense that things are about to change, we are really indulging in moments of togetherness. This is what I imagine a more structured homeschool-styled life would look like.