This article offers strategies to give young children hands-on (also eyes-on, ears-on, feet-on, brain-on, and emotions-on) experiences in the visual, music, movement and dance, dramatic, and literary arts, as well as art appreciation. To nurture children’s creativity, adults must build a welcoming environment (space), commit to the arts in daily life (time), and foster a receptive climate for artistic expression (atmosphere). These ingredients will allow children to indulge their curiosity, learn to trust their artistic judgment, and develop essential skills.
1. Provide open-ended materials and experiences.
Children learn best when they work with materials that can be used in diverse ways and explore ideas based on their interests. Encourage them to represent thoughts and feelings using different media, whether real (drawing a family car trip) or imaginary (singing about flying to Pizzaland).
2. Support risk-taking by emphasizing process over product.
Because children look to adults for approval, censorship stifles their creativity. Internalized, it becomes self-censorship, the bane of “blocked” artists and writers. Reassure children they won’t be punished for taking chances or making a mess. Don’t push them to make refrigerator-ready art or perform for the pleasure of grownups. Let them rub a sopping wet brush of mud-colored paint over the same spot until they make a hole in the paper, humming to themselves all the while.
3. Draw on the culture of art in children’s families and communities.
Without being conscious of it, children encounter art inside and outsides their homes long before they go to day care or elementary school. To lay the foundation for later “aha” moments, make children explicitly aware of what their senses experience. Be it a handwoven scarf fluttering in the breeze, jazz wafting from the speaker, the rhythm of words in their favorite storybook, the placement of flowering plants, or place settings at the table, alert children (and remind yourself) that these are all valuable forms of esthetic expression.
4. Make time for the arts every day.
While minimizing the emphasis on “products,” we must nevertheless be intentional about the importance of the arts in daily life. Set aside time every day to deliberately focus on one or more art forms with children. Make up songs on the drive to school, notice architectural features in your neighborhood on the ride home, invent ways of moving to the dinner table, emphasize word repetition in a favorite bedtime storybook. No matter how busy you are, make time for art.
5. Appreciate art with children.
Not everyone grows up to be an artist or writer, but we are all consumers. Our tastes are formed when we are young, and we benefit from the continuity of those early passions together with the embrace of new ones. Adults often scoff at the idea of teaching “art appreciation” to children as young as preschool. Yet research shows that children this age experience many forms of art at a deep level and they are not shy about sharing their esthetic judgments with others.
Visual art: Give children time to explore one material before you introduce another; use art materials alongside children; talk with children about the effects they create; read books illustrated with different art forms (collage, pen and ink, watercolor, saturated hues and pastels).
Music: Listen to and identify varied sounds in the environment (sirens, birds) and imitate them; encourage children to change the words in familiar songs; take turns drumming different rhythms and imitating one another; listen to music from all corners of the globe, in different genres.
Movement and dance: Imitate and label all the ways children move (“flapping” arms, “jiggling” feet); encourage children to move their bodies as they listen to different kinds of music; move to pretend situations (“How would you cross the room if someone spilled glue on the floor?”).
Dramatic arts: Follow children’s lead in dramatic play by enacting the role they assign you (that is, don’t take over); after watching a movie or video (with the child), discuss what the characters did and how they felt; act out different emotions using facial expressions and body language.
Literary arts: Make up stories and ask children to imagine what happens next; read poems and nonfiction narratives (not just storybooks); call attention to the sounds of language (rhymes, alliteration); take dictation (write down what children say when they describe their artwork).
Art appreciation: Expose children to a wide range of styles and genres; validate (don’t judge) their esthetic choices; ask children to describe their own and others’ artwork; children love words so give them a vocabulary to talk about the arts (scumble, staccato, glissade, offstage, reviewer).
Free Your Inner Child
How can we recapture and nurture the inner child in all of us? A common refrain in early education is that “Play is a child’s work.” Play is, or should be, the work of the adult artist and writer too. We can play with our peers, but it can be more freeing to play with children. If your life does not regularly include the presence of a young child, seek situations where you can observe them (a park, the supermarket, on public transportation). See the world, both good and bad, through their eyes. Imagine being inside their head when you paint, compose, choreograph, playact, write, visit a museum, attend a music or dance concert, or go to the theater.
Psychoanalytic theory puts forth the concept of ARISE, Adaptive Regression in Service of the Ego. It occurs when an individual’s personality reverts to an earlier stage of development, adopting more childish mannerisms. Sanely done, ARISE can yield creative benefits. Try it.