Consider the following stories that I’ve come across in my years as an education consultant:
- A teacher gave her class an assignment to draw horses. One little boy turned in a picture of a blue horse and received a grade of F. His teacher explained that horses are white, black, or brown. The little boy, who went home in tears, was confused because in his house there was a painting by Franz Marc in which three blue horses roam a brightly colored field.
- Theresa Amabile wrote about her excitement in getting to the easel and clay table every day in kindergarten, where she had access to bright colors and big paintbrushes and many other art materials. Her excitement was such that when she returned home in the afternoons, she wanted only to play with crayons and paint. Although she didn’t completely understand, she was thrilled to one day overhear her kindergarten teacher tell her mother she had the potential for artistic creativity. The next year, however, art became “just another subject.” Gone was the free access to art materials. Even worse, in second grade, her class was given small reprints of painted masterworks and asked to reproduce them with their crayons. The children’s reproductions were then graded by the art teacher. (Theresa became an expert on the subject of creativity, but kindergarten was the pinnacle of her artistic career.)
- A father described the wonder he felt when his young daughter, carrying easels, paintbrushes, and watercolors, accompanied him to a lake and, in moments, perfectly captured the essence of the September scene before them. His wonder turned to dismay, however, when she came to him for help in drawing a sailboat soon after she began school. Her teacher, it seems, didn’t care for interpretive artwork. Rather, the teacher insisted that the class create sailboats from dittoed triangles. (Years later, when planning her semester schedule, the young woman was appalled by her father’s suggestion that she take creative writing or beginning painting. Her response? “Who, me? Paint or write? Good grief, Dad, you ought to know better than that!”)
- A first-grade girl who, when asked to draw a butterfly like the teacher had drawn on the chalkboard, happily put purple polka dots on her butterfly – and was promptly scolded. After all, the teacher’s butterfly had no polka dots on it.
I was reminded of these stories when I recently received an email from a preschool teacher who is an art and science specialist who visits many different schools and programs and says she rarely sees “child-designed art” displayed. Rather, the wall displays are full of “nearly identical flowers, snowpeople, mittens, etc., where each child has been guided to produce something like the teacher’s model.” Similarly, she told me, “cute crafts” are all the rage on Pinterest and early childhood blogs.
Why the inclination to fit children into a mold – even prior to today’s “standardized schooling?” Why do so many educators and parents knowingly and unknowingly discourage creative expression?
An early childhood professional once told me that he believed creative children were much more difficult to deal with, so he purposely tried to discourage creativity. I’m hoping that was an anomaly! I think the reason most adults knowingly discourage creative self-expression is because they see little value in it. But consider these key personality traits of highly creative people cited by Teresa Amabile in her book, Growing Up Creative:
- self-discipline about work,
- perseverance even when frustrated,
- tolerance for unclear situations,
- nonconformity to society’s stereotypes,
- ability to wait for rewards,
- self-motivation to do excellent work, and
- a willingness to take risks.
I don’t know about you, but those traits sure sound wonderful to me. And Amabile tells us that if they’re not naturally occurring, they can be developed in childhood.
Of course, they won’t be developed if the important adults in children’s lives continue to discourage their self-expression by disallowing blue horses and polka dots on butterflies – and by insisting upon and displaying only imitative “artwork.”
The next time you’re presented with a child’s creation that you don’t necessarily understand or approve of, remember that it all starts with our words. Instead of saying, “There’s no such thing as a blue horse,” limiting what is possible and dampening children’s ideas, say, “I see you made your horse blue!” This validates their choices. Instead of, “I’ll show you how to do it,” focusing on the “right” way and discouraging experimentation, encourage creative risk-taking with something like, “You try it; I’m sure you can.” And instead of, “What is this a picture of?” – focusing on the product rather than the process – you might say, “You used a lot of green in your painting!” to describe and encourage without judgment.
I don’t know why conformity tends to be valued more highly than creativity. But I do know that people like Albert Einstein, Florence Nightingale, and George Washington Carver were nonconformists. And if we want to help create a generation of future Einsteins, Nightingales, and Carvers – not to mention Shakespeares, O’Keefes, and Bachs – we’re going to have to encourage children to express themselves – through whatever medium they wish!