Awakening Joy in Creative Expression

When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college- that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, “you mean they forget?”
Howard Ikemoto

Returning home from a school after discussing what is and is not ‘art’ with a group of teachers, I asked my husband, an artist, how he would define art. After a bit of thinking, he said “an intensely personal, charged, poetic and transcendent response to life”. In my discussion with the teachers, I said that to me, art represents an outlet for a unique and personal form of expression.

When my daughter was four years old, my family moved to Rome, Italy. The wife of the director of the American Academy very highly recommended a local nursery school, so my husband and I eagerly went to check it out. Everything was spotless and cheerful-looking. The walls were covered with children’s art – but all looking the same! Something was very wrong with that picture! We quickly said “thank-you” to the teacher and rushed outside, not knowing if we should laugh or cry. Luckily, we soon discovered a lovely school right near our home, where my daughter happily painted, drew, sculpted with clay, and returned home beautifully messy and full of stories about her day.

Now, more than thirty years later, it disturbs me when I go into classrooms and see walls filled with identical images of flowers, with pieces of colored paper pasted onto a teacher-made flower template, decorated ‘bubble letters’ representing a so-called artistic approach to learning the letter of the day, or row after row of colored-in worksheet pictures of farm animals. What do children take with them from this type of experience? Why is it that teachers still feel the need to control the outcome of what children produce when using paper, paste, glue, scissors and crayons? I’ve been told, on some occasions, that this type of activity is planned because it teaches children how to use scissors and to color inside the lines.

In discussing my thoughts about this type of proscribed activity with a wonderfully eager, yet anxious, teacher, I presented an alternate lesson for supporting young children as they learned to master the use of new art materials and tools. I suggested that children might each pick a square of colored paper and also be given a scissor. Before giving out the materials, the teacher would model how she cut squiggles and shapes from her own paper and also how she could tear shapes using the tips of her fingers. Then children could be invited to try it out on their own papers. While they are cutting and tearing, the teacher could gently show individual children how to turn their scissor to make the cutting easier while she marvels at the multitude of shapes that are being created.

Scissors could be collected and each child could be given a zip-loc bag labeled with his/her name and told that they were going to get their bags back tomorrow for something very exciting. Children could then return to the meeting area to share their responses to the activity and their ideas about what might be happening tomorrow.

The next day the teacher could return to her own zip loc bag and another colored paper (different color) and demonstrate how she arranges and rearranges her cutouts to make different kinds of designs, reacting out loud to her various designs so as to publicly share her thoughts with the group. Children could then each pick their own second sheet of colored paper, be given their baggies filled with cutout shapes from yesterday’s activity and go off to make their own arrangements. Talking, sharing and laughing at work tables is encouraged!

Once again, the shapes are returned to baggies, paper collected and children reconvene at meeting to discuss their experiences. Tomorrow they would get their baggies back for something very exciting!

The third day, the teacher could once again model arranging and rearranging her shapes but this time she would decide on one that she was particularly pleased with. Now she could demonstrate how she takes each shape, one at a time, and glues it to the paper so that she has a completed work of art. Children are now challenged to find their most pleasing design and to glue it to their papers.

If this work were displayed for the group to see, the discussion would probably be so much richer than any discussion about a series of identical flowers. The children have had experience cutting and pasting without the anxiety of keeping within the lines or making something look ‘just right’. They also would have had the pleasure of creating and sharing art that is uniquely their own.

Classrooms should have a neat and well-stocked art center that children can use independent of the teacher. All that is needed is a bookcase (I’ve sometimes used four milk crates tied together when I didn’t have a bookcase available) containing selections of paper, scissors, glue, crayons, perhaps some colored yarn, small mirrors, interesting found and recycled materials, chalk or pastels, watercolors, a basket of books with art reproductions, a small container of attractive art reproductions and museum postcards. New materials could be added throughout the year. If the teacher takes time, when needed, to introduce new materials or some strategies for using materials (i.e. paper-folding, clay creations, wood sculptures, collages, crayon etchings…) children can visit the art center at Choice Time and have the opportunity to go on their own artistic journeys. In this exciting classroom, the teacher takes on the role of a travel guide, encouraging children to make discoveries in an environment that invites experimentation and creativity.

Investigative learning can be messy, filled with trial and error experiences. It can be frightening for a teacher to give up the control that comes with whole-class, directed lessons that have clear, expected outcomes. Teachers who encourage inquiry and investigative play are always actively observing and assessing the progress of children. They take time to plan carefully for centers that both welcome and challenge children’s intellectual, social and academic growth. Bumps or turns in the road are welcomed as indicators of curiosity and are seen as wonderful possibilities for enriching and extending the curriculum.

If teaching is indeed an artful profession, then as Albert Einstein so wisely said, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge”

In my next entry, I’d like to discuss some ideas for employing Choice Time centers for exploring one inquiry topic. I welcome ideas and stories from your classrooms!

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.

4 thoughts on “Awakening Joy in Creative Expression

  1. Melissa Bowen

    This is an important post. As an artist, I agree with Simon that art is a “response” to life/the world. I’ve thought that the essential difference between “commercial” art and “fine” art is only that the former has a known outcome and the latter, being freer, does not. Both, of course, can have spectacular results, in the right hands (da Vinci’s, for example!). But in the case of children, it is essential that they be given the opportunity to express themselves artistically AND to have their viewer (the teacher) be delighted with that expression — because, as every artist knows, the art feels like one’s self, to the artist. The child filling in the flower (a predetermined outcome) can only be praised for his/her neatness or choice of colors: the child assembling his/her own collage (an exploration) is creating another world. And children, of course, know the difference.

    1. Renee Post author

      Melissa, my friend Sylvia taught art in middle school and she told me that her biggest challenge was to undo what children understood to be art. They came to her afraid of getting ‘messy’ and anxious when the project wasn’t a ‘follow the instructions and do exactly as I say’ type of assignment. She eventually, after she retired as a full-time art teacher, went to work as a mentor in early childhood classes, just so that she could help teachers understand more about art experiences for children.

  2. Cliff Thompson

    Your inciteful post reminded me of when I was in sixth grade music class, and the teacher had us sing a song whose lyrics were in a book. At one point in lyrics we saw the words “etc., etc.,” meaning that the words we had just sung should be repeated; but we got more of a charge out of singing the words “etc., etc.” We were really enjoying our improvisation, until the teacher informed us we were NOT to do that — clearly, we were having too much fun.

    1. Renee Post author

      Cliff, that is so interesting. I think that there doesn’t seem to be room for improvisation or serendipity in the classrooms today. That’s really a shame because I think that some of my most interesting class investigations came up unexpectedly from some question or interest that a child or group of children presented.


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