Pablo Picasso believed that all children are born artists, and that the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
Most of us lose our inner artist because we run out of time to nurture our creativity, and that problem is starting much earlier in life these days. Bonnie Weidel, director of Art for Kids in Benicia, has observed, after 40 years teaching art to children, that it’s getting increasingly difficult to engage kids in art. “There is too much going on in children’s lives,” she says. “They are so rushed. There is no more time for quiet space.”
Making time for creativity is especially important in early childhood because the arts stimulate both sides of the brain. In Weidel’s classes, children are able to develop an idea over a course of weeks: mixing colors, layering, sequencing, and using tools that build motor-skills, hand-eye coordination and a strong sense of independence. “I believe art is reflective of our lives. It allows us process of relating to our environment, the people around us, and a way of orienting ourselves to the world,” says Wiedel. This is not a process that can be rushed at any age.
Pat Hall, an art teacher at Benicia Middle School, says that often youth come to art classes with a belief that they can’t do art because they were not born with talent. But creativity, says Hall, is not something you are born with— it’s something you develop with practice. “Sometimes kids are failing everything except my class,” says Hall. “I’m not easy. I expect a lot from them, but once they believe in themselves they learn that with practice they can do things they never dreamed they could do.”
Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian who founded Waldorf Education in the early 1900s, believed in teaching the whole child by engaging the head, heart and hands. He believed that putting arts at the core of the curriculum fosters a lifelong love of learning that applies to all areas of knowledge. Painting, illustration, poetry, storytelling, movement art (eurythmy) and crocheting are among the many creative practices in Waldorf education with a focus on nurturing the child’s own way of learning rather than on textbooks and testing. Studies show that these children graduate with great success in life academically, spiritually, socially and creatively.
Many believe that creativity is as important as literacy in schools, and studies show that children who make art are stronger readers and get better grades in math and science. “Crocheting is one example of how art can be basic science, math or physics,” says Weidel. “Through this work with your hands you learn sequencing, pattern making, numbering, and geometry.”
“There are many values to children’s art,” says Larnie Fox, Executive Director of Arts Benicia. “The most striking value is that children’s decisions are honored and then they can take credit for the results. There are no right or wrong decisions when making art.” There is also more than one solution to a problem. Fox says this gives kids a boost of confidence that carries over into other parts of their lives.
Elisabeth Gulick, a teacher and arts educator for 30 years, says that it’s important that children understand that they may go into the art process with one intention and come out with another— and that’s okay. And, if the child doesn’t like what they created, just accept that. It’s always okay to start over.
The sense of accomplishment should come from within, so how we praise children is important. “When you praise a child too much it shuts down their own emotional responses,” says Gulick. “It doesn’t engage their thinking or feeling because you have made the judgment for them.”
Fox suggests giving specific, rather than general praise when observing the child’s work. For example: “That’s an interesting black jagged line you made there. That makes me feel a little frightened.” Or, “I like the way you are mixing your colors in this part.”
Gulick uses Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) when looking at art in museums or galleries, which uses open-ended questions to engage children and allow them to express their own perceptions. For example: “What can you tell me about the people in this picture? What shapes do you see in the painting?” You don’t have to know what the artist intended in the work, she says, and it’s always okay to change your mind.
As our elementary school teachers struggle with increasing class sizes and state testing requirements, even the most creative teachers have little time for the arts. It’s becoming even more important that parents nurture creativity at home. Gulick encourages families to get outside for walks and to look at the world around them creatively. She suggests collecting objects like leaves or stones and examining the details together. And she says: “Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty with your children!”
“Children always surprise me with new ideas, interpretations, and ways of looking at the world that I never would have thought of,” says Wiedel. “It’s part of the great pleasure of my work.”
Perhaps Picasso was suggesting that we keep our magical childlike perspective of the world, and that no matter where we are in our life’s journey, it is never too late to embrace our inner artist.
For children’s art resources, visit www.beniciamagazine.com.