Why Art and Creativity Are Important

Want your child to get the most out of making art? Let her create in her own way at her own pace.
Child painting

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Your preschooler is having a blast finger-painting with a mix of colors. Trying to be encouraging, you ask her, "What are you making?" and she shrugs. Until you mentioned it, she hadn't given it any thought. Little kids are masters of the moment -- they love the way it feels when they smear paint on paper, how it looks when they sprinkle glitter, and even the soft sound a brush makes as it crosses the page, says Amy Yang, founder of Brooklyn Design Lab, an art school for children. Unlike older kids and adults, most toddlers and preschoolers aren't self-conscious about what they're doing or focused on creating a finished product. That can be hard for parents to accept, says Lisa Ecklund-Flores, cofounder and executive director of Church Street School for Music and Art, in New York City. But letting go -- and allowing kids to enjoy the process of creation -- can reap big rewards. "Children will be better off in the long run if they're allowed just to be in the moment and express themselves," she says.

Why Art?

Fostering creativity won't just increase your child's chances of becoming the next Picasso. You're also helping him develop mentally, socially, and emotionally, says Ecklund-Flores. Creating art may boost young children's ability to analyze and problem-solve in myriad ways, according to Mary Ann F. Kohl, author of Primary Art: It's the Process, Not the Product. As kids manipulate a paintbrush, their fine motor skills improve. By counting pieces and colors, they learn the basics of math. When children experiment with materials, they dabble in science. Most important perhaps, when kids feel good while they are creating, art helps boost self-confidence. And children who feel able to experiment and to make mistakes feel free to invent new ways of thinking, which extends well beyond the craft room.

6 Ways to Inspire Creativity

Foster process-focused art with advice from Leslie Bushara, deputy director for education at the Children's Museum of Manhattan.

  1. Prepare for a mess. Set up an art space where your kid can be free to experiment (and get messy!), advises Bushara. Throw a drop cloth or a newspaper on top of your kitchen table or in the garage. If weather permits, let kids paint outside.
  2. Avoid giving direction. Don't tell your kid what to make or how to make it. Instead of saying, "Paint a rainbow," encourage her to "experiment with mixing colors using different types of brushes and paper," suggests Bushara.
  3. Speak specifically about art. When talking to your child about his artwork, try to be precise in your comments. For instance, instead of giving a generic compliment, Bushara recommends saying, "I see you used a lot of purple. Why did you choose that color?"
  4. Explore your child's process. Often the best way to encourage conversation about your child's art is simply to say, "Tell me about what you made," or ask, "Did you have fun making it?"
  5. Don't draw with your child. When parents draw something representational while a younger child is sketching, it can frustrate him, warns Bushara. "It's better to be near him and let him know that you're interested and supportive of his art-making," she says.
  6. Let it be. When a child finishes a piece, don't suggest additions or changes, advises Bushara. It's important for a child to feel that what she's created is enough -- even if it's just a dot on the page.

Fresh Art Ideas

Go beyond doodling with markers or crayons with these projects from art educators that encourage kids to enjoy the process of making art.

Natural arrangements Present your child with natural objects such as pinecones, stones, sticks, leaves, and shells, and a blank stretched canvas. Let her choose and arrange her nature materials in various patterns and designs on the canvas.

-- Cathy Southerland, director of early childhood education at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

Shaving-cream canvas Spray shaving cream onto a cookie sheet and add a few drops of food coloring. Let your child blend colors and make designs in the foam.

-- Cathy Southerland, The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

Found-object printmaking Take everyday objects (bottle caps, wood pieces, cut cardboard, fruit and vegetable slices, corks, sponges, marker caps) and let children ages 4 and up dip them in washable paint that's been spread on a foam tray. Use the objects to make unique prints.

-- Amy Yang, founder of Brooklyn Design Lab

Packing-peanut sculpture Slightly dampen the end of one packing "peanut" (the biodegradable kind made from cornstarch) and stick it to another to build tall, spiraling towers and beautiful shapes.

-- Andrew Ackerman, executive director of the Children's Museum of Manhattan

The Ultimate Art-Supply List

  • modeling clay
  • chalk
  • washable paint
  • paintbrushes
  • cotton swabs
  • sponges
  • stamps and inkpads
  • washable markers
  • crayons
  • colored pencils
  • plain and colored paper
  • tissue paper
  • scissors
  • glue
  • craft foam
  • ice-pop sticks
  • chenille stems
  • pom-poms
  • feathers
  • felt
  • fabric
  • colored tape
  • buttons
  • cotton balls
  • sequins and glitter
  • ribbon, yarn, string
  • beads
  • packing peanuts
  • drinking straws
  • egg cartons
  • cardboard tubes
  • cupcake liners
  • paper plates
  • clothespins
  • plastic cutlery
  • magazines, newspapers, catalogs
  • wallpaper samples
  • wax paper
  • aluminum foil

Clothespin Giraffe
Clothespin Giraffe

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

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