How to encourage creative thinking in children using visual arts materials

I firmly believe that everyone is born with creative abilities. My experience is that many people who are not aware of their creative abilities do not understand what creativity is. Unfortunately many people were not encouraged to develop their creative abilities as children. This is one way to encourage creative thinking in your child.

Recognizing, developing and using our creative abilities is vital. Being able to expand our thinking to include creative solutions to our problems creates new brain cells, increases our options, and improves our coping skills. The best time to learn creative thinking is during our childhood, while our brains are growing. Any adult who is involved with children (parents, teachers, Scout leaders) can help children develop their creative abilities.

Coloring books and “cookie-cutting” art (the kind of art where all children make the same item) discourage creativity. Although coloring books have a time and a purpose, when a child colors someone else’s creation, he is not learning to create something himself. There is also a purpose to “cookie cutter” art, however by doing this the child is learning to follow someone else’s directions. Genuine creativity is self-directed.

The most important step is to understand the stages of drawing development. Unnecessary criticism from adults diminishes a child’s ability to grow creatively. When adults respond negatively to children, they are less likely to repeat the activity. Children begin to enjoy drawing when they are old enough to hold a marker and scribble with the marker. Markers are easier for young children to use than crayons and safer than pencils. Adult supervision is necessary to ensure that the child draws on paper and does not put the marker in their mouth. A gentle reminder that markers are used on paper will usually suffice. If a child can’t do this, save the bookmarks and try again later. Young children enjoy learning to control the marker and are beginning to learn about creativity as they make marks on paper. Praising children for their work (“Look what you can do!”) and displaying the work will encourage them to continue their efforts.

Gradually, around the age of three or four, children realize that lines and shapes actually represent something and begin to try to make deliberate representations. It is important to encourage children to continue exploring what they can do with markers and never criticize or change their drawing. Around the age of four, children begin to draw pictures. Adults can encourage this by acknowledging the child’s growth and expressing appreciation for it. During this time, children will enter a stage called “Named Scribbles” where they will look at something they have drawn, see a shape that looks like “a bird” or “a frog,” and name the doodle as such. Once again, it is vital to appreciate this creative capacity in the child to foster creative growth.

From approximately 9 years old to 12 years old, children begin to try to make their drawings more realistic. It becomes important for them to try to make their drawings more proportional, fill the drawing with details, make the colors more realistic, and learn to overlap. At this stage, children begin to feel frustrated and may ask adults for more help. Those children who have not received encouragement from adults can stop drawing. If the children seem interested in being able to draw, this is a good time for them to get some drawing instructions. Drawing is a learned skill.

Clay is another important tool to encourage creative growth. Adult supervision is vital to prevent ingestion, and again, gentle reminders that the clay is for making things rather than eating are usually sufficient. Allowing the child to do what he wants with the clay will allow him to continue and grow in his own creative process. The process with clay is similar to drawing, and often children make something, look at it, and then decide what it is. Around the ages of nine to 12, it is normal for children to make phallic symbols and it is important that adults can accept this with little or no comment.

Painting is another medium that encourages creative expression. School-age children will have a lot of fun mixing the colors and will learn a lot while doing it. Children enjoy watching the colors swirl and gradually blend together. When a child mixes all the colors and discovers that he now has army green or brown, he has learned something about mixing colors. If they are able to mix in some moderation, with the help of an adult, they will begin to learn color theory. Paint is much more difficult to control than markers or clay. Stiff brushes help children better control paint.

Problems invariably arise when someone is trying to create something. Problems are opportunities for creative thinking. It is always better to let the child try to solve the problem on his own and praise him when he does it, pointing out how creative he has been. When they ask for help, an adult can encourage them by reminding them of other times when they have solved problems. The adult can also ask the child questions to help them think of solutions. What is more important is that the adult facilitates the child’s creative thinking process, rather than simply solving the problem for the child. Adults can make some suggestions and ask the child for more ideas. Brainstorming ideas and solutions with children invariably increases their ability to think creatively. Ask children for “dumb” ideas. Albert Einstein once said: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

Lastly, enjoy doing these activities with your children! It is true that we all learn better when we are relaxed and we are more relaxed when we are enjoying an activity. It follows then that adults need to be able to enjoy doing these activities with their children. Watching children enjoy their creative abilities can be extremely enjoyable for adults, as well as educational. Adults will often find that they have learned a great deal about being creative by watching their children.

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