Skills are nice, but give them time to develop creativity

Published by Lori Pickert on February 27, 2010 at 04:50 PM

Most adults, with our increasingly hectic schedules, assume that at least creativity is alive in our children when we send them off to drawing class or bassoon lessons. Yet most children’s time in the arts is spent either appreciating someone else’s art or learning the skill required to make the art, so that perhaps in the future one could be creative. This training sometimes leads to amazing technical skill. I have met more than a few children who can perfectly recreate a Dragonball-Z character or still-life bowl of fruit, but who struggle to create an original character, story, technique, or idea.

So what is creativity? Many will argue about semantics and definitions. I will not enter that fray. Whatever it is, creativity revolves around unique, independent, and original thinking. It sometimes leads to an activity, such as playing the violin or implementing a new program to end homelessness. But without creative thought, the activity simply cannot be creative. In the end, only you can say whether you have been creative — only you can know whether your thoughts are unique, independent, original. So when was the last time you were creative? The answer for many Americans’ children is “never.” — Michael Bitz, Creativity in Crisis: The “Brain Drain” in American Schools


Comment by Amy on February 28, 2010 at 12:55 AM

A notion worth considering for sure. I worry with my elder child that he is all creativity and no follow-through or discipline. I guess there needs to be a middle ground somewhere.

Comment by allie on February 28, 2010 at 06:39 PM

This is a great post - I think that we front load so many skills and "strategies", and then we move on. Children need to process and make it their own.

Comment by nic on February 28, 2010 at 11:53 PM

Hi Lori,
My first boy is seven. He loves to draw, and draw and DRAW, particularly manga style, and elaborate dragons and inventing his own Super Mario Bros characters. A while ago he attended a couple of art classes run by a funky local artist, which I thought (mistakenly) that he would love. I'm the kind of person who LOVES attending classes and workshops and learning skills. Not him though; he felt that the class was okay, but actually boring because he was just having to do what he was told and didn't get to make up his own drawings.
Hmm... so in an effort to find my own middle ground (as Amy said), I bought a book called Drawing Manga and left it around for him to pick up if he wanted to...which he did... for about 5 minutes...
Maybe some of us are keen for instruction and some of us will do better if left to our own devices, and the key is to discover when each of those is appropriate for each of us.
Really interesting topic!

Comment by Cristina on March 2, 2010 at 05:37 PM

I think I've been pretty lucky that my parents always encouraged my artistic endeavors, but never pushed. My mother had been pushed as a child, put in many art classes, and watched much of her work given away by her parents without even a thought of asking her, so when it was her turn to notice her children had artistic talent, she let it be and supplied our habit with reams and reams of paper. (Oh my gosh! We probably destroyed a small forest single-handedly!)

Now that I have kids, I see how each develops creatively in their own way, but I have to leave them alone!!! All I do is make sure I supply them with their personal fix. For one it is yarn, pencils and sketchpads. Another prefers colored pencils, pipe cleaners and Model Magic. The youngest eats up any craft and art supplies I offer her. Letting them explore the type of art they want to do is a better way to stir creativity.

I should say that I don't mind copying. All the great artists learned by copying the works of artists they admired. I think the difference is more in the passion. Hopefully, the child who enjoys drawing Dragonball-Z characters will eventually want to add his own creations to the Dragonball-Z world. I used to do that with my favorite comic book superheroes.

Comment by jen on March 3, 2010 at 10:55 PM

Hmmm - what a fun thing to think about. . . and what a horrible thought, "never" at the end!

Agreeing with you: This post reminded me of another post you did recently about reading (In Defense of Reading . . . ) in the sense that kids need to have free time to do lots of things - time to play the video games and time to read and time to be bored . . . which in our house is where the creativity often comes in. I usually see the creative happen when we have been outdoors for a really long time, and the kids are tired of all the typical things or when we've been stuck indoors for way too long and they just want something different to do. The exception to that rule is novelties - when there's four boxes and their packing materials that they inherit or when they get to try out a new art supply - that kind of thing.

Thanks again for the reminder to let them be bored!

Comment by Luisa on March 4, 2010 at 03:17 PM

What's also sad is that some kids don't know art because they are only familiar with artsy craftsy kits that don't promote creativity. Some crafts require parental involvement because the child can't follow the directions. I call it one shot art. Thank goodness for just a plain piece of white paper and a pencil.

Comment by stephanie on March 4, 2010 at 09:39 PM

Hi! As an art teacher, I try to mix it up- teaching skills, but allowing lots of freedom within a framework. I know some kids would like to just "free draw" or "do what they want to do", all the time, while others want me to make all the decisions for them. I think of my own art education, which didn't offer much in the way of skills (1970's), and I think that lack of skills hurt my development. Skills are like a tool box, or a vocabulary, that an artist can choose to use as they wish. Originality can come from an environment where it's okay to risk, skills proviide the method to express.

Comment by Catherine on March 5, 2010 at 06:17 AM

What a fantastic post. I teach process art classes for women and the first thing we do on the first class is to visualize the last time they were truly creative without judgment. For many women that goes back to when they were small children. The intention behind my work is to unleash the creative spirit that thrives in all of us, if we let it out. Their work is unadulterated, there is no judgment and no "how to." They just come to paint their heart out. Without connecting to our creative spirits (which as you said is different than a technique that allows us to reproduce an image or idea) we are not able to fully function in the world. For in the end creativity is not limited to paint and paper. It is vital to our everyday lives, big and small!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 7, 2010 at 04:00 PM

amy, interesting. that is what project work is to me -- encouraging children to stay with something longer. doing several different iterations of an idea using different media. having the same experience more than once.

i think most young children are explosively creative. but usually, instead of channeling that creativity and helping them turn it into something more, in the classroom they are often stifled completely. there's too much direction and focus on what the teacher wants rather than helping the child express himself and develop his own ideas.

allie, absolutely. there is a kind of relentless forward momentum. when do kids get to learn to use those skills and apply those strategies and really make them their own?

nic, that doesn't surprise me. i have a son who is an artist also, and he enjoys art classes but thinks of them as being separate from his own work. he also draws comics and he is completely uninterested in "how-to" books. he would much rather pore over a comic artist's book and examine how they draw.

i think the key in supporting your young artist is to ask him what he needs. sometimes their answers are surprising — and sometimes their needs are so simple. asking starts a dialogue and lets him know you want to support his work.

cristina, i agree completely about copying. all artists start by copying! writers start by copying the styles of the writers they most admire. it takes them years and an immense amount of effort to develop their own style; why would it be any different for children?

my son started out copying comics, then he wrote his own captions and storylines for the characters, and eventually he was writing his own stories for his own characters. it was a clear transition and allowed him to bridge his way to 100% creativity. and the entire time he was learning, including when he was copying. copying is a way to really focus on how a piece of work was made and how you can do similar work yourself.

jen, i am a long-time champion of boredom! :^)

luisa, so true. i find a lot of parents are anxious about doing open-ended art activities with their children so they end up using craft-y kits and follow-directions projects as a crutch, saying their child can use their creativity to "personalize" it. maybe they feel that way because they didn't have the chance to become fluent at making art when they were children .. or they lost the skill as they got older and were trained to focus on final outcomes.

stephanie, i think skills are absolutely necessary, but i think they should be for the child to express his own ideas. i know how difficult it is in schools today, with extremely limited time for art instruction, to give children time to explore materials and practice skills so they can be fluent enough to work purposefully on their own projects.

catherine, how depressing that they have to reach back so far! i believe it, too.

Comment by Deirdre on March 11, 2010 at 12:23 AM

So happy and sad to read these newer posts. We have a great "art coach" at our school...another program on the chopping block this year. My son loves art, unless someone is trying to make him make something specifically. I just don't know how to make any more clear to his classroom teacher that her "art" projects are really just "following directions" projects...which might be worthwhile in their own right occasionally, but let's not pretend that's art or creativity.

Lori, any chance you could add a feedburner link that would allow me to receive your new posts via email?

The longer school day/week/year quote on the other post makes me want to run for the hills!

Comment by Lisa on March 29, 2010 at 09:33 PM

One of the great joys of ripping my son out of his horrible high school is seeing nightly the way he now uses his time experimenting with every art media he can find. Schools kill this. I remember seeing "Our Wall of Creativity" at one school--and, yes, all the projects were identical!!!

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 3, 2010 at 04:37 PM

deirdre, we’re launching a new site soon that will offer e-mail subscription. yay! :)

re: following-directions projects .. YES. that is not authentic art. when *art* teachers don’t know that, i think we’re in trouble.

lisa, l o l re: the “wall of creativity” — truly, they do not see the problem!

i have gone to several school “art” shows that were groups of dozens of pieces of “artwork” that were all more or less exactly the same. truly depressing. the less art education we have in schools, the fewer people are going to be able to spot this for the problem it is. the emperor has no clothes!

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