Outside the lines

Published in the ‘Mothers and Babies’ supplement, Irish Independent 01/11/12.


Childhood is possibly the most creative time of our life as we are always ready to learn and to have a go at things. With the right environment children instinctively know how to explore, how to experience without worrying about the outcome and working until they are satisfied. How often have you heard them say, “I am done”?

Creativity is play and children are masters at it. Watching young children freely paint, dance and express themselves is a real joy, especially if we can relax enough to trust the process. Too quickly we are tempted to establish limits and rules that, rather than guide and nurture the child’s development can slowly and surely kill off those creative sparks.

For many adults the capacity to play is often lost, we can find it difficult to trust a child’s capacity to work out solutions and to give them the enough space and time. We might know that creativity is play but allowing ourselves to play is hard work. When my daughter Irene was born I took the opportunity to start playing again. Although she is now twenty-two and in college I am still playing away with paint, twirling around the sitting-room and buying beautifully illustrated children’s book.

This is my job, by the way, to paint with children, or with children and their parents, grandparents, teachers. Often adults ask for advice on how to facilitate an art session at home, what is the right age to start, what to do and how to do it? Well, here’s my advice, first, start by clearing a table, provide good art material (of which there is a wide choice nowadays) and sit down with them. Second, in my experience it is really useful to have what I call ‘an entry point’: a story, a piece of music, or simply a walk in the outdoors. Children need very little to get started and once they have there is no stopping them! A story that you have just read or made up together can then appear painted on the page full of new characters. Playing a piece of music can establish a particular mood and suggest a choice of colours and a painting rhythm. A walk in the outdoors provides an endless supply of images. Bring back natural objects you’ve picked together, to draw (if this is what they like to do) or to use as props for the making up a story.

Third, I suggest all you have to do is to relax, join in and be guided by them, there is no need for much talk or direction, in fact it would be best to refrain from interfering too much and just let it happen.

The time spent together during art making can be really magic. The children’s comments can be revealing of their feelings as they enter a dreamy world of which they are the creators and masters. Fourth, I strongly recommend that you take the opportunity and time to observe how they work, what art form they enjoy the most and leave them at it until “they are done”.

Next, gradually introduce different material to work with, for example, clay or plasticine, or wool and sticks to make imaginary creatures. Remember to observe which material they prefer as not all children like to get their hands dirty!

Then, depending on the age, provide diverse craft activities that get them to use hands and brain co-ordination. Anything that involves cutting, gluing, tying knots, folding, threading etc… will help the child to develop those manual skills that are gradually being lost to computer and television time.

Lastly, a few tips on what not to do! Be careful not to close down an enjoyable experience with comments on ‘the right way to do it’ as there is really no right or wrong in art making. If at all possible avoid standard colour-in pages with flowers and animals ready made. Never say ‘stay within the line’, let them draw and paint their own creatures in within whatever lines they set. Creativity is anything but staying within lines or inside boxes. Creative energy is not rigid so really has no patterns or boundaries. It has its own natural flow and it’s unpredictable. Children instinctively know this. That’s its beauty.

After many years working or rather playing creatively with children, I have often observed that children who regularly engage in art activities of any kind quickly develop a confidence that will help them throughout their school years and into adulthood. As parents all that we have to remember is what Picasso once said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist as we grow up.”