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.


Beautiful Oops


In the fall of 2012, I was taking a class that ended up being life changing for me. The class about experiences in early childhood literacy was brought to life by my talented college instructor, Lana Kostiuk, who deeply influenced how I thought about books for children. Lana’s dynamic lessons and standards for quality not only helped inform my own passions within early childhood education, but they pulled me into the world of Reggio as I learned about provocations and rich literature.

One of the first books  Lana shared with us, was called Beautiful Oops. I remember how mesmerized I was as she read it. I remember how the wheels in my head started turning and thinking “wow!” The book invites us to look at mistakes from a different perspective, seeing opportunities disguised as faults. It has a very beautiful concrete application for young children as well as figurative one for adults. I highly recommend checking it out!


In the spring of 2015, I bought the book for a friend who had just graduated from teacher’s college. A few years later I saw a FB post of a coffee stain on a student’s paper that she had cleverly changed into something else. A few months later, I bought a copy for my family. I knew it wasn’t yet relevant to my daughter who was 20 months at the time, but I knew that day would come.

That day came today.

H has really been into drawing for the past week. This sent me over the moon because for almost a year, she’s shown little interest in it. I’ve been marvelling at how her drawing ability has been evolving (maybe I will share some of her creations in another post) but this evening she was very frustrated with the process.

I knew there were a number of factors coming into play: our routine has evaporated during the holidays. Late wake up/sleep times, forgotten meal times and minimal regard given to what she’s eating have understandably made her more grumpy and prone to high emotions. Moreover, not having the social connections she has become accustomed to (preschool friends and attention from me) have also affected her ability to cope. So when I could overhear her frustrated, angry, scribbling furiously over pictures that were not turning out the way she wanted and tears pierced with cries for attention, pleas for playing together and the “you didn’t spend any time with me today” I knew this was an opportunity.

I promised once I got Y into bed, I would be all hers.

And somewhere in that two hours of spending time together, we read Beautiful Oops. Most of my children’s books that are not in current use are housed in the basement, but for some reason, this one has always loved in my bedroom.

H was intrigued and fascinated. We read the book together and I saw her go through it atleast three more times in the short period before bed.




I suggested that maybe we could revisit her “mistake” from earlier in the day- the possibility of turning it into something beautiful was an idea she loved! She also asked me to join in and beautify some of my “mistakes”.




I hope that powerful feeling she felt is one that stays with her. She already asked me if I could leave the book downstairs so she could read it every morning.

Bye Bye Basket: deconstruction and loose parts


There is lots I’ve been wanting to blog about. My phone gallery is full of photos I’ve taken over the last 6 weeks but instead, I’m here to take you on a visual journey of what happened in our house today.

We have a basket on the shelf with Y’s playthings. As those things have increased, the contents have gotten heavier and one side of the handle started coming undone and finally broke.

Today, as Y pursued some playthings, he found himself trapped.


I decided to snap the handle off of the basket and gave it to H who I figured would find an imaginative use for it. She quickly got to work.

image.jpegIt wasn’t long before she had pulled apart the entire handle.


“Mama, can I have a bowl for my spaghetti?” Then she found a mixing spoon.


Perhaps some of the pieces didn’t fit in the bowl because soon she was creating a circle on the ground.


“Look mama, I made a face!”

I brought over some twigs and pine cones with the hope that she would enhance the faces, but she had other plans. She grabbed the container full of art utensils, eyeing the highlighter and got ready (to colour all over the floor). Unfortunately, it was time for lunch and nap so I promised her that when she woke up she could continue at the table after we covered it.

So after her nap (and costume change because what fabulous 4 year old doesn’t change their clothes at least 5 times a day?) we each started colouring a piece. Notice her grip, experimentation with holding multiple markers and her rearrangement of marker lids.

After surprising her Papa with her creation, she found me and started singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (we went to go see a production of The Wizard of Oz yesterday).

imageI remember reading somewhere about how taking things apart can also be considered an aspect of creativity. After 7 years of marriage to an engineer, I’ve come to appreciate this form of creative expression and was overjoyed to see H’s process unfold over the day- how she deconstructed part of the basket, played with it in different ways and then created something new and personally meaningful. Wow.


Odds and Ends


We’ve been doing a lot of play and exploration with light and shadow (post forthcoming) but in the meantime I thought I’d share some photos of the other things we have been up to. It’s fascinating for me to be back in the baby years and witness how quickly physical, social and cognitive skills are developing. It’s also been interesting to see changing dynamics and relationships within our house.





October Round Up


October has been a busy and interesting month! We spent the last few days of September outdoors visiting the farm and exploring the neighbourhood.


Good thing because the beginning of October brought snow! Fortunately, it was temporary so we could enjoy fall some more.


As we found ourselves settling into more of a routine, we started spending more time indoors.

H came across this tray and literally begged me to fill it with things for her (she remembered the last time we had used it), so in a five minute hussle, I filled it with things from my kitchen (isn’t it amazing how many different types of pasta there are?!)


H got to work, adding in her own loose parts like bracelets.


This month, she spent a lot of time dressing up. Sometimes she used ready made costumes and sometimes she used her imagination.


I love H’s knack for symbolic play. I think she would be great at improv. Here she is with her bicycle helmet, a bunk bed she made for her dolls and putting her babies to sleep in their bassinets.


We voted in the municipal elections and that raised a discussion about mayors. So far the only mayors she knew about were Mayor Goodway and Mayor Humdinger. She was very curious about Mayor Nenshi.


H played with old loose parts, building homes and having picnics.


And explored new ones too.

We read. We ran up hills. We went to go see a play.


We did experiments and yoga.

Our car broke down and we ended up stuck at her school for a few hours. It was nice for me to have a deeper look at her preschool environment. I know I’m the keener parent- the one who is always looking at the lesson plans, remembers spirit days and peeks to see what new centres have been added to the room.


As Y has been growing older, it’s fascinating to see what captures his attention. Not only does he love watching his sister at play, but he has started to express his own preferences. He was really drawn to this bicycle-printed hijab of mine so we used it over his play gym and suspended from the swing. He also tried catching his shadow.


I spent time learning this month. I found some inspiring Facebook groups and attending virtual workshops I had signed up for last winter. This exposure to seeing Reggio in practice got my gears turning and reignited my passion for self-growth and reflection.

When I look back at some of what we did this month, I feel exhausted! But I also can’t help but smile at all of the synapses (brain connections) that must have been made. Play, is after all, the work of the child.


Fall Faces and Feels


At our house, we’ve made playdough quite a few times but this was the first time we made scented playdough. And how wonderful it smells…I seriously want to eat it!

We made pumpkin spice playdough a few days ago and have been playing with it in old ways and new. Basically, just add a few tablespoons of pumpkin spice mix to your favourite playdough recipe.

We combined it with found items (bits of nature I had collected on a walk last week) and made faces.


We used an assortment of rocks, pinecones, twigs, bark, berries, seeds, and plants.


Perhaps more interesting was what happened when H started deconstructing the faces. She noticed the imprints the different textures were making in the playdough. Her favourites were pinecone impressions used on their heads (I had only thought to use it on its side).

Talks about the wonderful smell of the playdough led to reminiscing about the last time we used the pumpkin spice mix. It was in December to make gingerbread cookies. So we decided to make a playdough batch of cookies and decorate with natural “gummies and m&m’s”.

This led to making sprinkle cupcakes and chocolate chip muffins.


H has a a tote box full of plastic playdough tools and cutters that we’ve amassed over the past few years but it was great to be able to use these natural materials to process our playdough. We tried using them with clay last week but this seemed to be better received.


Mobile Adventure Playground


Since coming into the world of early childhood education and play, two of the concepts I’ve found most intriguing are loose parts and outdoor play. Calgary’s super cool Mobile Adventure Playground initiative marries these two ideas with some awesome implications.

As parents living in the modern world, when we think of parks and playgrounds, we (sadly) often think of permanent well-groomed areas covered in sprawling plastic structures meant to be played on (and not with!)

This mobile adventure playground challenges that concept. Instead of permanent fixed play structures, children (and adults) have access to a variety of parts (that would otherwise be lying in a landfill somewhere) and can use their imaginations, gross motor muscles, and cognitive skills (much of which can draw on science, engineering and math) to do with them whatever they’d like.

In my talk with one of the play facilatators, I discovered that thirty years ago, adventure parks and playgrounds could be found in Calgary and currently thrive in the UK, Denmark and other areas of Europe. Thanks to a grant from the Lawson Foundation, Calgary’s mobile adventure playground is one of three in Canada and grew out of a 2015 study on outdoor and play engagement and 2016 pilot period, when 2000+ people came out to play.

The mobile adventure playground is relatively easy to set up. Some of the items featured in this one were: tires, plastic crates, pieces of wood and cardboard, pipes, pieces of old play structures, kitchen items like bowls and colanders, scraps of fabric, logs, buckets, paper tubes, cable spindles and a wheelbarrow.

Like many great things, it’s not so much about product as it is about process. Initially, the children stood around not really knowing what to do but once they started exploring and imagining, their play really got going.

In my time there, I observed children create slides and fishing boats, obstacle courses and clubhouses, bunkers and moving vehicles.

There are so many great aspects of this playground:

  • it is mobile and will be set up in different locations throughout the summer (for a schedule, click here)
  • it is free to access
  • it reuses everyday materials in novel ways
  • there’s no one way or right way to set up the materials
  • the same materials result in different types of play depending on who is using them
  • the (big) size of many of the objects required children to work together to move them, fostering cooperative play
  • children that don’t know each other will probably interact, either by playing together or asking permission to use/share materials, helping to develop negotiating skills
  • socioemotional development: not only will children take pride in their play and creations, but they will also learn how to navigate more challenging emotions like loss (when someone might repurpose items they are no longer actively playing with as experienced by H and her friends); struggle and frustration (physically, cognitively and even emotionally) as children try to bring their visions to life;  and conflict when children may want to use the same materials or have different visions for what/how things should be done
  • the playground is set up outdoors allowing families to benefit from exposure to nature
  • the playground utilizes green spaces, temporarily transforming existing (neighbourhood) sites

This park is a break from the norm and would be a welcome change to summer play, especially in the case of children who:

  1. are very active and appreciate gross motor play
  2. love imaginative play
  3. enjoy using stem (science, technology, engineering, math) principles to bring their play into reality
  4. are bored of traditional park experiences

For more information on Calgary’s mobile adventure playground or to view the schedule/locations for the rest of the season, click here. If you’ve ever been exposed to an adventure park/playground, please comment with your experiences and location.

Happy Playing!