One of the very first drawings a little kid makes is a stick figure. It may be Mommy or Daddy. It may be the teacher. It may be a self-portrait. Next comes a lollipop tree, a pointy house, a giant sun. As in all things of life, we start small before growing into larger, more bold ideas of self-expression, but express ourselves we must and express ourselves we will — one way or another.
It’s true that a picture says a thousand words, and when kids are young, their scribbles and fingerpaintings may not seem like much, but they help the child to get out what’s inside. That’s why the arts are so important for kids as they grow. People are not one-dimensional stick figures, they are messy, in-depth puzzles of rich and challenging emotions.
Some studies have linked the repression of negative emotions to increased anxiety, and in a 2012 study of people who lived to 100, from Cornell Medical College, emotional expression was found to be a common trait along with a positive attitude toward life.
Simply put, want to help your kids express themselves in a healthy way? Put as much emphasis on their arts education as you do their academic or athletic. While taking an arts class of any kind is different from art therapy — an approach proven to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being through creative self-expression for children (and adults, too!) — it makes sense that arts for any reason help with self-expression. The arts include music, dancing, theater, art, poetry, writing and various ways of using them.
KIDS DEVELOP LIFE SKILLS THROUGH ARTS ACTIVITIES
The arts may seem like fun and games — and it is — but you may not realize that your child is actually learning a lot through exploring the arts and doing art activities. Kids gain useful life skills through art, so encourage them to get creative and you will quickly see that your children are picking up these skills:
“When a child draws a picture, paints a portrait or dances around the living room, that child is beginning to communicate visually,” says Mary Ann Kohl, author of Primary Art: It’s the Process, Not the Product (Gryphon House). A child may draw to document an actual experience like playing in the park, release feelings of joy by painting swirling colors or share an emotionally charged experience like the passing of a loved one through art. Art goes beyond verbal language to communicate feelings that might not otherwise be expressed.
Social & Emotional
“Art helps children come to terms with themselves and the control they have over their efforts,” Kohl says. Through art, they also practice sharing and taking turns. Art fosters positive mental health by allowing kids to show individual uniqueness as well as accomplishment, all part of a positive self-concept.
Fine Motor Skills
Holding a paintbrush so that it will make the desired marks, snipping paper with scissors into definite shapes, drawing with a crayon or squeezing glue from a bottle in a controlled manner all help develop a child’s fine motor skills and control of materials.
SELF-EXPRESSION and CREATIVITY
Kids express themselves through art on a fundamental level. Picture a toddler who has a new baby sister busily pounding his fists into Play-Doh; a 6 year old joyfully painting flowers with huge arm movements blending reds and yellows; a 10 year old doing a spot-on imitation of his grandmother. Creating art allows children to work through feelings and emotions. Rather than being told what to do, answers and directions come from the child. Art requires freethinking, experimentation and analysis — all part of creativity.
And a child does not have to create a masterpiece to have a meaningful artistic experience. Art is a process, not a product. It’s tempting to want our child’s audition for the school play to be perfect to prove that he has talent, but art is the process of creating — exploring, discovering and experimenting — that has the greatest value. The freedom to express yourself yields creativity — the skills to shape your expression is what training in any art form is about.
GETTING STARTED AT HOME
“While you may want your home to look picture-perfect, seeking perfection is not in your best interests is you want to raise creative kid,” says author Amanda Blake Soule in her book, The Creative Family: How to Encourage Imagination and Nurture Family Connections (Roost Books). She says that when we give kids the space and encouragement they need to explore their surroundings, they can become the most inspiring of artists the most inquisitive scientists, the most original thinkers. Short of letting them destroy your home, teach your children early on how to prepare a creative workspace with materials, play music of all kinds that you love for them and discover who THEY love, show them great performances. Emphasize creation, unique ideas and no rules. Kids who grow up to think outside of the box are those kids who learned to come up with solutions through their own imaginations. To tap into that, they need to be free to think on their own. There are several ways to bring them to this with your parenting:
According to Po Bronson, best-selling author of What Should I Do With My Life? (Ballantine), pretend play is associated with high creativity. Supply your kids with space, props, dress-up clothes, ideas for make believe and plenty of down time for it. If it gets messy, so be it. Refrain from sending “what a mess!” messaging. Bronson’s research shows that moving into middle school, kids who get into fantasy play when they’re young display a higher level of creativity from kids who don’t, so keep on encouraging their involvement in theater, music, dance and fine art.
Invent and Create
“The term ‘open-ended’ means that there is no end product expected,” Bronson says. Open-ended play allows kids to create whatever they can imagine. Don’t insist, for example, that your child MUST follow the directions for his Lego kit.
Buy blocks, paints, fabrics and open-ended types of toys for imaginative play and throw out the rules.
Once you’ve encouraged your child with suggestions and supplies, the classes they’re interested in or the instruments they’d like to play, step back. Provide the freedom that allows for unstructured creativity to rule the day.
Whether or not you yourself are a creative parent doesn’t matter. Chances are, if you’re not you’d like to be. So why hold back? Go on a creativity journey with your kids and break out of the boxes society wants to shove you in. Don’t let the arts be squelched in favor of academics or athletics. Know that the very essence of creativity is what gives individuals the chance to excel in whatever they pursue. The arts provide what kids need to be the squeaky wheels in life. And you know what they say about squeaky wheels.