Artistic passion is second nature for young children. They draw and paint eagerly, sing unselfconsciously, choreograph their own dances, and act out dramas using whatever is nearby as props. Unless they have models of creative expression and time for artful play, kids tend to shut down in the early elementary years.
It helps when we include the arts in our conversations as naturally as we talk about what to eat for dinner. It also helps when kids see us pursue our own creative endeavors. As with anything, it’s what we pay attention to that we magnify.
There are endless ways to keep the arts alive in our children’s lives. Here are a few suggestions.
Sketching & Painting
~Keep open-ended art supplies available. Make it easy to grab colored pencils, paints, and other materials. Try to stay relaxed about clean-up. It reduces stress if you can set up designed bins for supplies, plus a shelf or tabletop where projects can wait to be finished.
~Take a sketchbook along on outings. Our perceptions are awakened by new places. Try materials such as pastels, watercolor pencils, and charcoal. Use them on different papers against surfaces like tree bark or stone. Notice how texture, form and color abound in the natural world. Draw your impressions of light and shadow through trees, on the water, and along the street. It’s also fun to collect leaves and flowers, pounding them with a rock to release color onto the paper.
~Draw rebus pictures. Rebus pictures inject light-hearted personality to lists, notes, and stories in a cartoonish way. Rebuses, if you don’t remember from preschool, are simple pictures used to replace the occasional word. Even a quickly rendered image is pretty easy to recognize. On the rare occasions my dad and his brother wrote cards to each other, they injected some levity with rebus images.
~Ask others to contribute a drawing. A friend of mine enjoys asking people she meets to add a quick drawing of an imaginary creature to her sketchbook. She’s been collecting these sketches for years, keeping them between the pages of her own drawings. They provide a glimpse into friends as well as strangers, inspire her art, and help her family recognize imaginative powers in people of all ages.
~Encourage studies of the same area over a period of months. Lie on the living room rug or sit on a park bench. Look at this place from many angles, in different light, and then express that viewpoint in pencil, clay, collage or other media. The study can be expanded. Draw the scene as it might have looked thousands of years ago, or to a creature that sees only temperature, or from a worm’s eye view.
~Draw the same thing repeatedly. You might choose to draw faces, or lamps, or shoes. Draw the tree in your back yard as it appears in different seasons and times of day. DaVinci did all sorts of studies of this sort. He drew page after page of noses, bird’s wings, and running water. This is a daydream-y exercise that invites you to find all sorts of nuances in your subject. You may not only become proficient at drawing salt shakers, but may notice salt shakers wherever you go.
~Doodle. This non-directed activity is a great way to allow your brain to idle while creative impulses emerge.
~Let art serve as a diversion. Keep different art resources reserved for travel or situations with long wait times. The Anti-Coloring Book series and Klutz series as well as anything by Keri Smith are marvelous diversions. Keep a few on hand for variety.
~Pair art with writing. Encourage young children to dictate the story behind their artwork. They’ll love to hear you read it back. Offer to do this even after kids are old enough to write well — often you can print or type faster than they can, allowing their imaginations to fly more freely. Put together homemade books (or books using photo sharing sites) along with a memory or story. Take a nature journal outside. (Here’s more on keeping a nature notebook.) Illustrate a funny saying, quote, or family joke. Make postcards and greeting cards to send (grandparents love these). Write about a dream and draw an impression of it.
~Share art. Share paintings and drawings on social media. Frame and hang them on your walls in an ever-changing gallery. Or go big, setting up a children’s art exhibition at a local coffee shop, church, store, or recreation center.
~Express your feelings. We don’t have a lot of creative outlets to express our reactions to bad news, personal disappointments, fear, excitement, or anticipation. Channel them into art. This is downright therapeutic, whether you’re four or ninety-four.
~Get abstract. Take away the burden of recreating representational images. Paint a favorite smell, a new idea, a mood, a strong impression left when waking from a dream nearly forgotten, a taste, a laugh.
~Let kids explore art museums their own way. These institutions are meant to be enjoyed. Rather than make a museum trip an ordeal, stop by often to take in a new exhibit and don’t stay long. Let your children stroll along as interest leads them. You might decide to look for something specific on the way (one of my sons liked to spot animals, another son made it his quest to find anything airborne—birds, planes, angels, flying carpets). Making galleries places for discovery makes the collections more accessible and allows our children to feel comfortable there. Especially as kids get older, museum visits are more enjoyable when friends are along, We were often surprised to find that our 10th trip to a museum, where my kids clamored to see favorite sculptures and new exhibits, was the first trip for their friends. Teens are more likely to go for their own reasons, perhaps to sketch a particular work or to volunteer as docents.
~Start early. Listen to music as you nurse your babies to sleep, imagining the wonderful association that child is making between sound and comfort (whether Bach or the blues). Make music paired with storytelling available to kids for bedtime listening, quiet time, or travel — especially those by storytellers such as Odds Bodkin (who started my kids’ love of Homer’s Odyssey) and Jim Weiss. A great selection is available at Gentle Wind, Chinaberry, and your local library.
~Sing. Singing is wonderful for the mood as well as the body. When adults and older kids sing here and there through the day, young children are empowered to make singing a more natural part of their lives. Sing silly songs about your daily activities, make up lyrics together, sing whatever song is in your head at the moment. (Yes, my teenagers were embarrassed by my singing tendencies. I just tried to sing more quietly.)
~Show wholehearted enthusiasm for sing-songy names, rhymes, and clapping games. These are timeless introductions to the arts and invaluable for early childhood learning.
~Dance. Turn up the tunes and move. There may be no more powerful incentive to get kids dancing. To expose kids to all sorts of dance, don’t forget dance videos, dance performances at fairs and art-in-the-park programs, and movies that incorporate dance from old musicals to the newest Bollywood releases. Several colleges and arts organizations near us offer student dance performances several times during the academic year with cheap (or free!) tickets for kids.
~Play for your own enjoyment. Drag out your old violin, teach yourself to play the harmonica, heck, learn to play an instrument that’s entirely free — spoons! Do it for yourself and the background sound of your home changes, instantly, to music played live. Once kids get accustomed to your playing they may not seem to pay much attention, but you’re building memories that they’ll later cherish.
~Gather musicians together. Combine instruments, however unlikely, for improvisation and fun. Get together a jam session, choir, or band with people in your family, neighborhood, church, or arts group. Help your community set up an annual Porchfest. Or just get together with your guitar-playing neighbor to share some tunes. Collaboration really does amp up the playfulness.
~Consider hosting house concerts. This is something we’ve started doing in our humble living room. For more information, look to the folks at Concerts in Your Home.
~Get young kids involved in music and movement programs. Around us, most music-movement programs are prohibitively expense. We found a music therapy practice near us in Ohio that also offers active programs for kids of all ages at a very reasonable price. Widen your search terms to find one near you. Or find a musician or new music grad interesting in hosting such a program.
~Check out music that sparks learning in a variety of subjects. Musicians United for Songs in the Classroom shares all sorts of songs as teaching tools to engage the learner.
~Take in live music whenever possible. If you live near a college town or urban area your choices will be larger. Often you can find free or low cost performances at festivals, ethnic fairs, period music celebrations, student and faculty recitals, and brown bag lunch concerts. It will likely help younger children if you talk beforehand about what to watch for and listen for. Young children may enjoy a concert more if they are allowed to bring along a small stuffed animal or toy that can dance on their laps, draw their impressions of the performance on a small sketchpad, or enjoy a normally illicit lollipop.
~Incorporate music into all areas of learning. Talk about the meaning of song lyrics, notice how musical style historically reflects the culture from which it emerged, look for the links between music and math, read about musicians, and watch some of the many extraordinary movies about the lives of musicians.
~One word, puppets. Whether your characters are socks or fancy puppets, young kids have all sorts of fun putting on puppet shows. Doing so, they’re also teaching themselves the elements of performance.
~Attend plays. Children’s theater performances are cued to a short attention span, as kids get closer to the preteen years they’re more likely to enjoy longer performances. Many kids enjoy a play more if, beforehand, you read a synopsis or a picture book based on the play.
~Start a playwright’s club. We did this with young children while their older siblings took part in a book club. The kids made up stories together, then acted them out. We usually did this outdoors where trees and park benches served as scenery, scarves and sticks served as props. Older kids in a playwright’s club may be eager to write scripts, build sets, make costumes, and put on performances. They can also script and perform puppet shows, videos, animations, or other productions.
~Take part in community theater. Encourage interested kids to take theater workshop classes and, as they get older, try out for roles onstage or behind the scenes.
~Check into apprenticeships and mentoring experiences with musicians, artists, actors, costumers, stagehands, dancers, vocalists and others in the arts field. Simply ask people involved in the arts if they have considered taking individual students, offering a workshop, or allowing young people to shadow them for a day. You’d be surprised how many people are eager to share what they know with the next generation.
Arts in general
~Balance arts adventures. When you journey any distance to see a music performance, attend a play, or ramble through galleries make that stop one of several anticipated events. Try to spot murals or other public art on the way. (When they were little my kids knew we’d arrived when they waved at the Guardians of Traffic pylons as we drove over the bridge to Cleveland.) Take a break in an ornate big city library, eat a packed lunch in a park, stroll through an open air market, pick up unusual snacks at an ethnic grocery, and let your child’s curiosity help guide the day’s events. If part of the day incorporates a lot of sit down time (including the ride to and fro) be sure to balance that with movement, exploration, and sensory adventure.
~Take art walks. Identify a theme of interest. An architecture walk may focus on particular structures such as houses of worship and the meaning reflected in different styles of buildings you encounter. A sculpture walk may follow a map of the city’s historical district, but pay attention to unexpected things your children identify as sculpture. Try a “found art” walk with a camera or sketchbook, capturing what each person on the walk finds interesting. Or take a collage walk, where you and your children pick up objects to use later in an assemblage. If you are going with a group on an art walk you may want to find an expert to lead the walk.
~Use the brain-building tool of compare and contrast. Casually use it every now and then. Compare favorite TV shows to plays, puppet shows, and dance performances. Contrast an ethnic festival where one is exposed to the games, food, dances and music of a culture to the presentation of that culture in the media. When discussing any aspect of the arts it can be valuable to look at it from other viewpoints.
~Arts opportunities can be surprisingly cost-effective. There are free and reduced price admissions, workshops, and programs in many areas. As kids approach their teen years it helps to get beyond age-narrowing classes to find (or create) collaborative arts engagement where teens paint murals, play music, put on shows, plan festivals, and more with other members of the community. Learning about culture takes place best in the midst of culture.
Somewhere not far from you there are plays in rehearsal, movies being filming, musicians practicing, sculptures being shaped, and dances being choreographed. Art is alive even in the most remote communities, although sometimes it takes people interested in energizing cultural affairs to get people connected. You may be one of those people.
Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning.