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

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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