At a very young age I decided that art was not my thing. My coloring did not stay inside the lines, my pictures never looked the way I’d imagined, and I couldn’t seem to imagine very much to begin with.
Generally speaking we like to do what we’re good at, and since I wasn’t good at art, I rarely drew or painted or crafted. So I became less and less skillful at it, until the subject was dropped in school and I stopped altogether.
This is a common story. I think most of us would say we are not artists. We might express our creativity in other ways, through writing, fashion, computer programming or cooking, but after a certain age we don’t draw.
And then, if we become parents, we see our kids begin to draw. Like most parents I understood that experimenting with art is essential for kids’ creative development, and that it’s an important pre-cursor to learning to write, but I wasn’t sure how best to introduce my young children to art. After all, I’m not arty.
Browsing online for ideas on art with toddlers was discouraging. There were so many beautiful images of crafts for kids, but my toddler didn’t want to create Easter baskets or snowflake ornaments. He was just too little.
Luckily I discovered a wonderful book, Young at Art by Susan Striker, which encourages keeping art with toddlers very simple and process-orientated. In other words, we should let children explore creative materials freely, without worrying about what is created. Art with my sons took on new and wonderful directions. We’ve learned a lot along the way, and are learning all the time.
I’d like to encourage any other non-arty parents out there: you definitely can get creative with your kids!
I’d like to encourage any other non-arty parents out there: you definitely can get creative with your kids! This is what I found works for us. I hope you will find something here that works for you too.
1. Experiment with different materials and media
Big paper, little paper, colorful paper, crayons, paints, printing… But don’t put out too much at once. For example, one type of paper and one or two colors is enough for a great art session.
I followed Susan Striker’s advice to introduce colors gradually, at first painting with just one primary color (red, blue, or yellow), then offering a pair of colors. This helps toddlers to discover new colors, and helps keep them from getting overwhelmed and creating a brown sludge every time they paint!
We painted with different colors in time with the seasons: blue and white in winter, introducing yellow to make green in spring, then discovering red and orange in summer, and purple in autumn.
2. Don’t worry about the outcome.
Little ones enjoy exploring art materials, but a toddler is not ready to produce ‘representational art’, i.e. to draw pictures that look like recognizable things. Children’s drawings develop according to a surprisingly predictable pattern. They start with scribbles, moving on to circles and enclosed shapes (around age 2 or 3), from there to very simple human figures (circles with lines for arms and legs around 3 or 4), and then to drawing more recognizable pictures.
Understanding this fascinating process definitely helped me to have appropriate expectations. For example, we often see coloring books targeted at young children, but giving these to toddlers is setting them up to fail. There are lots of better ways to have fun with art.
3. Simple creative time can be a relaxed, routine part of the day.
Go ahead and research ideas online, but don’t let the achievements you’ll find discourage you. There’s really no need to reinvent the wheel for toddler art.
Toddlers and preschoolers enjoy scribbling and letting rip with color, chalk, glue or play dough, then moving cheerfully on to something else, like being a dinosaur. Art might not last long. For a lot of set-up and a lot of cleanup, the actual art bit can be surprisingly brief, but if a toddler’s had enough, they’ve had enough.
4. Think about how you join in with your child’s art.
In Young at Art Susan Striker warns against drawing pictures for little children. Since toddlers are not developmentally ready to make deliberate images, she argues that drawing pictures for them can destroy their confidence. Janet Lansbury and Bev Bos have both also written on the importance of not showing our children how to draw, paint, sculpt and so on.
On the other hand, take a look around any preschool or Pinterest board on art with kids, and you’ll find adults do get involved. Perhaps we need to experiment to find what works best for our unique children. In my case, I find that when I draw my sons enjoy watching and talking with me about the pictures, but it rarely encourages them to draw themselves.
I’ve tried to find a compromise: our daily art time is first and foremost about encouraging my kids to create. I love to talk with them very simply about what they’re doing. And I do regularly draw simple pictures or symbols for them, but never press them to copy. Instead, I use the drawings to spark conversations and stories with my little ones.
5. Above all, we don’t have to tell our little kids we’re not arty. They won’t guess, and they don’t care!
As parents it is important to keep our language positive. If I draw a terrible elephant and say ‘Ugh, this is awful!’ I’m modeling this kind of response to art for my sons. Instead I could say, ‘His trunk is so skinny!’ Together we can learn to look out for what’s funny or interesting in a picture.
As we gently break into art together, and to my surprise I think I’m enjoying it now as much as my sons. I even bought a couple of Ed Emberley’s wonderful step-by-step drawing books to provide prompts, for me now and for the kids when they’re older if they choose. I wouldn’t say the experience is going to turn me ‘arty’, but it is certainly fun.