I have no fewer than 527 large-format watercolor creations, all abstract, ? la Kandinsky. But they are the work of a slightly more obscure artist: my daughter, Lydia, whose preschool was equipped with a trio of easels. She never passed the paints without picking up a brush. However, by the next year, she practically went into retirement, except for an occasional creation from a 30-minute Wednesday class.
Welcome to kindergarten and first grade, where art tends to fade into the background as reading, math, and science dominate the school day. "Most school kids do art projects just once or twice a week, and thousands of elementary schools across the country are even eliminating art from the curriculum because of budget cuts," says Eileen Prince, a longtime art specialist at the Sycamore School, in Indianapolis, and the author of Art Matters. "If your child relished painting, drawing, and crafts in preschool, she's probably going to be disappointed by how little time she spends on them in elementary school." To fill in the gap for your budding Picasso, try these simple tricks for engaging her at home.
Unplanned projects are usually the most creative and fun. To encourage art when the mood strikes, keep crayons, colored pencils, oversize paper, glue, and child-safe scissors in the open where your kid will pass by them often, suggests Kathy Chapman, a printmaker and art teacher at The Shipley School, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Include a roll of plain paper, great for side-by-side drawing during playdates, says Chapman, and a pad of graph paper. "Some kids just like to color in the blocks of graph paper," she says. "It's almost a Zen thing for them, like knitting can be for adults." Also, store a sketch pad with a firm back and a pack of colored pencils in the car.
Don't limit your kid to the supplies you bought at the store. Fall is the ideal season for natural and free goodies such as leaves, pinecones, acorns, petals, and sticks. Gather them up with your child after school, and then challenge her to make something with them.
Identifying the fundamental shapes in things -- like circles and triangles in a cat's face, for instance, or ovals in flower petals -- gives kids a starting point for drawing. Help your child look for shapes in your house and backyard, and encourage him to sketch what he's seen.
The engaging illustrations in picture books are often just as interesting for kids as the actual story, says Chapman. The next time you read to your child, talk to her about the difference between an author and illustrator. Look at the different styles of drawings from book to book. Then, if she's game, encourage her to be an illustrator for a day: Read her a story without revealing the artist's pictures, and ask her to draw a picture showing what happens.
Resist asking your kid, "What's that supposed to be? Instead, say, "Tell me about your picture." Imposing your vision sets your child up to feel bad about what she's doing and will discourage her from creating at home. Rather, display some of her favorite pieces.
Even the most traditional museums are now welcoming families with young children. "Many art museums have kids' programming and downloadable family guides," says Dewey Blanton, a spokesperson for the American Association of Museums. Plan to visit only one or two galleries per trip; more than that can be overwhelming. If your kid begs to stop at the gift shop, point her toward the postcards. These inexpensive souvenirs are great visual reminders of different techniques.
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Parents magazine.